It had been an early wakeup call. The University of Central Arkansas football team was trudging through the Little Rock airport with Lubbock in the rear view mirror.
A couple of travelers going the other direction smiled and shouted, “We saw the game; great game guys!”
That contrasted to the concerned look of folks in Lubbock when the Bears left the stadium Saturday night after a 42-35 loss to the Big 12’s Texas Tech that went down to an onside kick in the final minutes.
Many of the Tech faithful were shaken.
While UCA fans were celebrating the best showing ever against a higher-level team, Tech partisans called it a “moral defeat.” Most were expecting the game to be over at halftime.
Tech had high hopes for the season, so much that coach Kliff Kingsbury was given a lucrative contract extension through 2010 on the basis on an 8-5 season.
Last year, the Red Raiders lost five straight games, largely because of a suspect defense and a tendency to shoot themselves in the foot.
Saturday night, those same issues surfaced. Tech had 114 yards in penalties, had an interception in the end zone and another that led to a cheapie UCA score. The Raiders also gave UCA a safety on intentional grounding in the end zone. The Bears pushed the Tech defense around a bit on three scoring drives of more than 70 yards.
The team from a Power 5 conference could not put the FCS team away.
There was a lot to be impressed about from the initial outing from Steve Campbell’s first UCA team.
Most notably, at one point in the second half, because of injuries, UCA was playing five true-freshmen on defense against one of the most high-powered offenses in college football. One of those freshmen, Artez Williams, returned an interception 38 yards to set up a touchdown.
“A few months ago, these guys were in caps and gowns and now they are playing against that kind of offense before 60,000 people and they are throwing flour tortillas at you,” said Campbell.
The Bears, a team that has sustaining drives in recent years, had scoring drives of 18 plays, 12 plays, 14 plays, 15 plays and nine plays against a Big 12 defense. It is rare that a team has that many sustained drives at midseason, much less a season opener. An 18-play drive is a marvel of execution against any team at any level — even against air.
It was the best offensive line execution by UCA this early in the season in years. That was indicated by running back Willie Matthews rushing for 98 yards, the most by a UCA player against an FBS team.
One of the main takeaways from this these UCA players, once stunned by Clint Conque’s December departure for Stephen F. Austin, will play and play hard and relentlessly for this coaching staff.
They led Texas Tech, 16-7, in the first half. After the Red Raiders seemed to pull away at 28-16 early in the second half, the Bears never yielded and took the game down to the last possession.
One game is not anything in which you should project an entire season. But there are enough positive signs to indicate something special could be brewing at Estes Stadium.
(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 5010-505-1235 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @dmaclcd)