University of Central Arkansas football coach Clint Conque began Monday healthier, smiling and apologetic.

He said his ribs, injured during a postgame celebration after the victory over McNeese State on Saturday, felt better, particularly in the glow of one of his team’s biggest victories in NCAA Division I.

"I’ve called the McNeese program the gold standard of our conference, marquee and blue-chip and they are all that. They’re very comfortable in their skin of who they are, where they have been and where they want to go," said Conque, who was an assistant at McNeese earlier in his career. "So when you get the opportunity to beat them, it’s something special. Finishing 7-4 and beating McNeese makes it a great year."

However, he was disappointed in 14 penalties for 124 yards, including five unsportsmanlike-conduct penalties — two on the same play, a couple of the flagrant variety and an ejection of senior cornerback Henry Minor. Three of the unsportsmanlike penalties were by two seniors.

"Earlier today, I apologized to (McNeese State coach) Matt Viator, Brad Teague (UCA athletic director) and president (Dr. Allen) Meadors," Conque said. "The way we played at times is not what we want to exemplify. We want to play with an edge but with poise and I don’t think we played with poise. We lost our cool on some occasions that that will be addressed during the offseason. There were some games we played this year without emotion at times and I don’t want to take the emotion out of it. But I want us to do that with poise and class. We had reduced our penalties and yardage by 50 percent from last year. It was out of character for certain things we did Saturday.

"I think we were too amped for who McNeese is. It was like we had to prove our resume after every play. We want to play like we’ve been there before."

He said after the Cowboys drew within 21-14, it became a field position game. For most of the second and third quarters, the Bears started possessions inside their 20.

"Eddie Carmona (punter, 43-yard average, longest of 65) kept us in the game," Conque said. "He changed field position with his punting and with our coverage units, which improved exponentially this year."

The Bears finished 4-3 and tied for third in the Southland Conference and posted their fourth winning season in five years in NCAA Division I. They failed to make the standard of seven Division I victories that would have put them in strong contention for an at-large berth in the NCAA FCS playoffs. But 10 teams did not meet that standard and the Bears were in the final pool of non-qualifiers that filled out the field of 20.

"A lot of things went our way Saturday (as far as playoff positioning) but several didn’t," Conque said. "But I know at 9:30 Saturday night, we were still on the board and in the hunt and that’s where you want to be."

PLAYERS OF THE GAME: Three shared the honors on offense, quarterback Nathan Dick (22-34-0, 291 yards, two touchdowns), wide receivers Ken Robey (eight catches, 103 yards, one touchdown); and Isaiah Jackson (five, 115, one touchdown). On defense, the coaches selected end Markell Carter, who closed his UCA career with seven tackles, one sack, three for loss and a fumble return for a touchdown and linebacker Frank Newsome, who had 14 tackles, two for loss. Carmona earned the special teams honor.

NEXT SEASON: The Bears are set to return 17 regular starters (and 18 others who started at least one game) and 50 lettermen. The UCA staff redshirted 16 high school recruits from last year and "that’s the formula you want," Conque said.

He said the UCA staff will try to find immediate help and physical maturity in the offensive and defensive lines, an experienced receiver and possibly a linebacker. He said UCA has already offered a scholarship to an in-state quarterback and one from the Memphis area to go with the four (Dick, Wynrick Smothers, Jim Youngblood and Ryan Howard) already in the program. "But we are going be very selective at quarterback," Conque said. "We are not going to sign a quarterback just to put one on the roster."

He said UCA officials intend to appeal to the NCAA for another season for Carmona, who was listed as a senior.

"But there are certain circumstances that we think Carmona should be granted another year," Conque said. "So, Eddie Carmona could become our No. 1 recruit."