During the last three weeks on the road, the University of Central Arkansas Bears have suffered a devastating loss to Colorado after it appeared they had the game won, got whipped by UT-Martin in a game they incredibly still had a chance to win on the last play, then won a game at Missouri State they probably should have lost.
There has been a lot of half-empty stuff for the Bears, especially when the start has not been as clean and efficient as expected.
But UCA coach Clint Conque is looking at the half-full aspects and he’s still seeing a pretty good football team.
Despite a secondary whose depth has been dramatically thinned by injury, UCA has displayed a dominating defense, particularly up front. The Bears are first in scoring and first in rushing defense in the SLC and are in the top two in overall defense. What’s even more impressive is that the Bears have made 40 tackles for loss for 137 yards in four games.
Even some young backups on the defensive front, true freshmen Jordan Tolliver and Terrence Partee, have come on strong.
Although UCA has struggled in the running game, quarterback Wynrick Smothers ranks 14th among all quarterbacks in all NCAA classifications in passing yardage and is completing 75.9 percent of his passes, including 14 straight and 19 of 20 against Missouri State.
The Bears’ offensive line has allowed only two sacks in four games.
Conque is confident, with an open week to tweak, that the running game will improve.
The variable concerns injuries, which have spread through the Bears like a virus in recent weeks.
Already, UCA has lost for the season a fifth-year defensive back (Karl Brady), one of the most experienced defensive backs (Dominique Brown) and a promising, young defensive back-linebacker (Aum’Aire Wallace). Hayward Jeffries, an up-and-coming redshirt freshman cornerback, has also been lost indefinitely. Several others in the defensve backfield are limping, turning what was once as deep of a position as any for the Bears into a patchwork group of bumps, bruises, strains and breaks.
Against Missouri State, center Alec Willis limped off the field with an ankle injury, and starting tackle Kyle Stouffer and his backup, Jordan Kersh, also were hurt, Stouffer apparently for the longest period.
Both place-kickers, Eddie Camara amd Jace Denker, have been injured. Other than attempting a last-second field goal against UT -Martin that was blocked, Carmara, one of the top place-kickers in NCAA FCS going into the season, has not kicked in three weeks. He is expected to return for McNeese State.
Conque refuses to use injuries as an excuse, but he’s noted that the injury bug has bit harder this season.
“We’ve been lucky the last three years in we haven’t had many injuries of the type we’ve had this year,” Conque said. “You always have a few. but we haven’t had the debilitating ones — those in which a player is out for several weeks of a season. What’s worse is sometimes we’ve had both a starter and his backup injury. All coaches talk about it but to win championship, teams have to stay healthy and in rhythm.
“What some people don’t realize that injuries affect the kicking game because you have to use inexperienced players or have to play starters at the risk of them getting tired because they don’t get to rest as much.”
And the Bears face a Southland Conference that is as balanced and tough as in recent years.
A 1-3 Stephen F. Austin team raised some eyebrows last week by knocking off No. 3 Montana State in a road game.
“It’s gonna be a football struggle each and every week,” Conque said. “This conference is as good as it’s been and is dominated by great quarterbacks, great running backs and great coaches.”
But the contact with opposition ceases for a week with some time to tweak and reflect, something the Bears haven’t had a chance to do at this stage of the season in recent years because the open date occurred at the end of the regular season.
“We’re looking forward to being at home this week watching everyone else play,” Conque said.
(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 501-505-1235 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @dmaclcd).