University of Central Arkansas coach Steve Campbell pulled strategies from two other sports to help his team hang on in a 41-30 victory Saturday over Sam Houston State.
The UCA defense, playing aggressively and superbly against perhaps the fastest-moving, high-powered offenses in the country, was obviously gassed in the fourth quarter after building a 31-17 lead. The Bears were huffing and puffing and hanging on. Sam Houston was churning up-tempo and not making many substitutions in order to keep the Bear defenders on the field as much as possible.
For the game, the Bearkats ran 89 plays to UCA’s 65 and drew within 34-30 in the fourth quarter.
You know how basketball coaches will take a timeout to stop a run?
"I told coach (defensive coordinator Greg) before the game that with the tempo they play, we were gonna use most of our timeouts as defensive timeouts," said Campbell. "Let the guys get a moment to rest and take a swig of water. We ended up being out of timeouts of their 1 at the end of the first half but we still got a field goal out of it."
The Bears also benefitted from television timeouts.
When a no-huddle, up-tempo team substitutes on the fly, the game is halted to allow defenses to make substitutions.
"When you substitute, you don’t have to sprint on the field," Campbell. "We ran slowly. It’s like in baseball when a pitcher gets in a rhythm and you try to slow things down by stepping out of the batter’s box. Our defensive coaches did a good job of mixing our defenses and substituting."
The Bearkats regularly score 50 or 60 points. Holding them to 30 is the equivalent of holding many teams t0 10 or 14.
Sam Houston scored 59 against the Bears last season.
The preparation for this game began in the spring and summer in evaluation from that loss and the loss to Eastern Washington, another high-scoring Spread team, in the FCS playoffs.
The UCA staff knew that they needed to get a team more prepared for those high-powered teams they would inevitably face in November and December.
In each of the three preseason scrimmages, the Bears constantly went at their cornerbacks, who would be responsible for man coverage, with an assortment of deep balls against the pass-fast teams.
And one strategy against Spread teams is if a team can hold up in the defensive front and get some pressure on the quarterback with three or four players while at the same time limiting the damage with the running game, it can devote more players to pass coverage and to bracket receivers. A team such as Sam Houston, with its talented group of receivers, is going to make big plays. The key is for the D-backs to make a few themselves or get a draw on some occasions.
The foundation to that, as is the case in modern football, is speed.
The Bears have more speed and more versatile athletes, on both sides of the line of scrimmage and from line to back end, on defense as any time in recent history.
"The key is to be able to have speed in the matchups," Campbell said. "We did a good job in locking down on their receivers."
The UCA victory raised some national eyebrows, put the Bears in the top-10. With half the season over, they have a good chance as a top-eight national seed, which means a first-round bye and home games in the FCS playoffs if the Bears can take care of business down the stretch.
"What we have just done is put a big target on our backs," Campbell caution his team after the game.
On the upside, the Bears are being primed not only for Southland Conference play but many challenges beyond.