Wearing gray from from head to toe for the first time, the University of Central Arkansas Bears fell into a black hole on their striped field Saturday afternoon.
About the time the skies turned ominously gray over First Security Field at Estes Stadium, the McNeese State Cowboys headed to the woodshed and drug the erratic, mistake-prone Bears with them.
“We got outcoached, outplayed and they were more physical; it was pretty humbling and an embarrassing situation. It was a total and thorough whipping. Unacceptable,” said UCA coach Clint Conque after the Cowboys (5-1, 1-0) powered to a 59-28 victory, put the Bears (2-3, 0-1) against the ropes at the beginning of the Southland Conference race and took the Red Beans and Rice Bowl trophy back to Lake Charles.
The Bears, who lost for the first time in 14 games on their striped field, were hit with their worst defeat since they joined the Southland Conference. They surrendered the most points to an FCS team (Tulsa scored 63) in Conque’s 14 years at UCA. It was also the most points scored by an opponent at Estes Stadium.
“Poor tackling, poor gap integrity and missed assignments,” said Conque. “Turnovers put our defense in some bad situations, but you have to go play the next snap. We had a lack of discipline. We had some guys uncharacteristically doing their own thing.”
The Bears were administered the beatdown while still generating 644 yards of offense and running an outstanding 106 plays. They ran 64 plays and amassed 496 yards in a video-game style first half and still trailed by 21 (42-21)
The Cowboys got some big plays from their offense, a break when the Bears handled a possible game-changing fumble recovery like a greased pig and stunned UCA with 21 points within a 5:21 period in the final minutes of the first half to break a 21-21.
While that spectacular flurry put the Bears on the ropes, Conque pointed to the opening minutes of the third quarter as the knockout blow.
The Bears overcame an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty on Dillion Winfrey for excessive celebration after an interception return of 30 yards for an apparent touchdown to start the second half. The touchdown was nullified but UCA overcame that and quarterback Wynrick Smothers limping off momentarily with a shin injury. Backup quarterback Ryan Howard entered on the fly and completed a third-down pass to Blake Gardner and passed 3 yards to Chase Dixon to draw UCA within 42-28 with 11:52 left in the third quarter.
After holding McNeese to three-and-out, the Bears took over at their 37 after a 28-yard punt and promptly drove to the Cowboy 23. Wynrick passed 6 yards to Jatavious Wilson on first down, then was incomplete on his next two attempts. Eddie Carmara was right right on a 40-yard field goal attempt.
The Cowboys took advantage of a pass-interference penalty to drive 77 yards in four plays, the telling blow a 28-yard touchdown pass from Chris Stroud to Marcus Wiltz, who romped 28 yards untouched down the sideline after the Bears blew a coverage.
The Cowboys went up 49-28 and put cherries on the traveling trophy with a touchdown after intercepting Smothers for the third time, then adding a 39-yard field goal by Ryan Rome.
“If we could have just gotten (the deficit) down to 11 midway through the third quarter, I thought we had a chance,” Conque said. “We were moving the football. We then had to start throwing about every down and their defense could tee off and when we missed a field goal, it took the air out of any comeback. And McNeese close the deal.”
Both teams scored on their first possession, the Bears driving 75 yards in seven plays and the Cowboys 75 in six plays. After a vicious hit by DJ Holland forced a fumble that UCA recovered on a third-down play at the UCA 3, Smothers led the Bears 92 yards in 12 plays to take a 14-7 lead with 14:28 left in the second quarter.
Then things got wild.
Wiltz, who rushed for 181 yards on 17 carries broke several tackles attempts and appeared to be going down for good when he spun off the back of Jestin Love, caught the UCA defense in relax mode and sped 77 yards to the 3, where he tied the game on the next play.
After a 44-yard kickoff return by Wilson, the Bears drove to the McNeese 3. Then, Smothers tried a throwback pass as he was falling backwards under pressure and Ryan Bronson intercepted with a clear sideline and a freebie and school record 98-yard interception return for a touchdown.
UCA responded with a 66-yard to tie the game at 21-21 on a 39-yard pass from Smothers to Damien Watts with 6:21 left in the half.
The Cowboys used a double pass to stun UCA with a 46-yard touchdown to go up 28-11 with 4:12 left.
The Bears drove to the McNeese 24 and had three straight incompletions, the last on fourth down.
A hit by Dillion Winfrey on Dylan Long resulted in a fumble that the Bears seemed to have McNeese outnumbered five to one on the recovery attempt. Tight end Zach Hetrick miraculously recovered for the Cowboys at their 20.
“I saw four or five of our guys try to pick the ball up when the coaches were saying ‘just jump on it,’” said UCA lineman Matt Hornbuckle. “Too many of our guys tried to scoop and score. We’re taught to scoop and score but at the same time, you’ve got to get on the ball You’ve got to take advantage of the opportunities.”
McNeese, powered by a 68-yard pass play, went up 35-21 with 1:24 left and took advantage of an interception to connect on a 40-yard pass play to go up 42-21 with 59 seconds left in the half.
The Cowboys slapped the Bears for five plays of 40 yards or greater andf had touchdown drives of 80 yards in two plays, 75 yares in six plays 65 yards in four plays 76 yards in three plays and 40 yards in one play.
“We should be able to tackle,” said Conque. “If we can’t tackle, I don’t know why these young men are here.”
The Bears lost leading receiver Dezmin Lewis to an ankle injury early in the second quarter. Conque said it was uncertain how long Lewis would be out but the initial diagnosis indicated it would be a few weeks.
UCA goes out of conference to host Nebraska-Kearney of NCAA Division II on Saturday.