The 3-0 start by the University of Central Arkansas football team may appear pristine on the surface, but coach Clint Conque has spotted some ominous weeds.
And he's concerned. Actually, he's about as agitated as a 3-0 coach can be.
The Bears have gotten off to slow starts offensively in their last two games. For the first time in Conque's nine seasons, UCA has been shut out in the first quarter in back-to-back games. UCA yielded 14 sacks all of last season. In three games, they've given up six.
With both broad strokes and one-on-one challenges, Conque said, at Monday's Bearbacker luncheon, that he's taking steps to nip things in the bud, including some possible personnel changes at certain positions.
"Why? Because for us to contend for a conference championship, we've got to play four consistent quarters," he said after the Bears overcame 3-0 and 10-7 deficits to defeat 0-3 Arkansas-Pine Bluff 41-17 Saturday night at War Memorial Stadium. "We're gonna have penalties and we're gonna have turnovers and we're gonna miss tackles and have missed assignments, but right now we're having more of those than we should and that concerns me.
"Saturday, UAPB came out and hit us in the mouth, and we weren't ready for it. Give UAPB credit, they were playing for a cause. But if we start like that against Tulsa or in Southland Conference play, we are going to find ourselves down two or three touchdowns at halftime.
"We're pleased to be 3-0 and our ranking (16th FCS Coaches Poll), but we want more and we're pushing every button and every envelope to get the most we can from this team. I think we're getting our players' attention. It's better to do that and get things corrected when you're 3-0 before these things rear their ugly heads later on in the season."
He continued, his voice occasionally rising in intensity for emphasis as he recalled how he challenged his team at halftime and in a meeting Sunday night, "We're looking at everything from scheme to personnel. We have good kids, but this is a performance-driven society. And if some people are not performing, you find somebody who can. We have set the table and are not helping ourselves. We are better than this. At some point, you have to call people out. People are gonna call me out if I'm not doing things right."
He pointed to a 34-0 run in which UCA pulled away in the second and third quarters. "I think that made a point to the team that if we do things right, we can be dominant. When we don't, we're in for a catfight."
One of the early problems for the Bears was tackling UAPB backs Martell Mallett and Mickey Dean, who often gashed the UCA defense the first half.
"Now, those are two dangerous FCS backs; they can play or us and a lot of people," Conque said. "One of the problems is we were missing (because of injury) two of our best tacklers in Taylor Scott (lineman) and Jacob Bane (middle linebacker). "It's like in baseball, softball, basketball and a lot of sports, you've got to be strong up the middle. We're putting a little extra on some young people who might not be able to respond at the level we want them to be playing."
Some of the personnel adjustments could be in the offensive line.
"We can look at different personnel in the line because our injury situation has leveled out and is not as bad as it is on defense," he said. "That can allow for some adjustments and to reward some players for performance."
INJURIES: Brad Gordon, a senior offensive guard, aggravated a old ankle injury when he got twisted while leading a block Saturday for quarterback Nathan Brown. Conque said Gordon is definitely out for Saturday's game against Quincy, and his injury will be further evaluated next week.
"It's the same injury as before to somebody who weighs 300 pounds, so we have to be very aggressive with treatment and keep a close watch on that," Conque said.
Scott, a defensive tackle, could see limited action this week after recovering from an MCL injury.
"If we get no more swelling, we might be able to get him in for a series this week," Conque said. "I've had three knee injuries so I know how it is, and there's a confidence factor in coming back. You've got to be confident in planting that toe and cutting. If we can get him a series, get him some confidence on the knee, get him sweating and the adrenaline going for a little bit Saturday, it will help. The other alternative is to hold him out and play him against Tulsa (the next week). But then, you have to go through the confidence issues."
Linebacker Anthony Summers is out for the season. Conque said receiver Brandon Kennemer, coming off spring knee surgery, is not ready yet, but he's getting closer to playing.
PLAYERS OF THE GAME: On offense, the coaches selected center Casey Thurber, who graded 87 percent for the UAPB game. Free safety Derrick Boyd was the choice on defense. Mike Neal got the "Big Stick" award and Seth Allison was the top scout team player.
Although place-kicker Eddie Carmona was selected the Southland Conference Special Teams player of the Week for five extra points and field goals of 46 and 37 yards, the UCA coaches picked punter Jon Beard for their award.
"Carmona did well but he also had a couple of kickoffs he did not put in the right place and that was unacceptable and he understands that," Conque said. "In three games, our opponents have yet to return a punt. That's because Beard has kick the ball out of bounds inside the 20, inside the 10 or the punts have been fair caught. Jon Beard is doing that good."
SPREADING IT AROUND: Eight different receivers have caught touchdown passes so far.
"We don't have the dynamic, single great receiver like we had in the past with Aaron Fairooz, but we have a sold group of receivers who are above average and we're able to spread it around and I think it makes us more effective on offense," Conque said. "Eric Ware is coming up big and we know Willie Landers has big play ability."
TURNING ON THE JETS: Conque said early in the second quarter, offensive coordinator Todd Cooley decided to switch to the Bears' "jet tempo," no-huddle, speed-up style and it jump-started the sluggish UCA offense.
"He said into my earphone, 'let's go jet tempo'; I said I love it and let's go," Conque said. "I think it woke us up."
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