COOKEVILLE, Tenn. — Although it’s the first meeting between the two teams, the University of Central Arkansas-Tennessee Tech matchup in the first round of the NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision playoffs brings back bad memories for both coaches.
UCA coach Clint Conque said the Golden Eagles, of the teams the Bears have played this season, most resemble undefeated Southland Conference champion Sam Houston State, which defeated the Bears 31-10.
"They want to run first and foremost with two quality running backs behind a big line," he said. "They have as good of defensive ends as we’ve played. Their secondary is very good getting to spots."
Tennessee Tech coach Watson Brown said the Bears most resembled Tennessee State, which defeated the Golden Eagles, 42-40, and Murray State, which downed Tennessee Tech, 38-27. The only other loss by the Golden Eagles was decisively to Iowa.
"Passing teams have given us the most trouble," Brown said. "Other than Iowa, our two losses have been to teams that like to throw the ball. They were narrow losses and high-scoring games.
"Playing teams with that style you hope would help us, not that we would use the same game plan," Brown said. "We’ll go through and see what things worked and what didn’t."
"I think the teams are evenly matched and the game will be decided on who makes the fewest mistakes," Conque said.
Even though the Golden Eagles usually line up in a two-back set and try to first establish the run, Conque has a lot of respect for their passing game.
"Tim Benford is as good of receiver as we have ever played," Conque said.
"He’s our go-to man," Brown said. "What we do works off that."
Benford, with 210 receptions for 3,007 yards, was the Offensive Player of the Year in the Ohio Valley Conference, earning first-team honors for the third straight year. He ranks third in school history in catches and yardage.
This season, he has hauled in 58 catches for 826 yards and five touchdowns, despite being consistently double- and tripled-teamed in games. He ranks 22nd nationally in receptions/game (5.80), 26th in receiving yards/game (82.6) and 29th in total receiving yards (826). Four times this season he had 100 or more yards in a game, including against Tennessee State when he had 10 receptions for 122 yards. He also had six catches for 131 yards and two scores against Maryville College, eight catches for 124 yards at Eastern Illinois and six catches for 116 yards and a touchdown against Murray State.
Tre Lamb, the Golden Eagle quarterback, is completing almost 64 percent of his passes.
"He’s the son of a coach (Bobby Lamb, longtime coach at Furman) and he has the ‘it’ factor," Conque said. "He’s a winner."
Brown plenty of respect for the UCA offense, which revolves around first-team SLC quarterback Nathan Dick.
"We’ve got to find a way to contain him," he said. "What is impressive is he can beat you with his feet. From the tape I’ve watched, he’s made several first downs with runs on something like third and 6 or great. And he’s got a lot of players he goes to and they’ve used three good running backs. It didn’t take me long on film to see they are very talented and athletic.
"What remind me of Tennessee State is they are have a big quarterback who can get the ball to a lot of different people."
Both teams are making their first appearance in the FCS playoffs. Tennessee Tech is celebrating its first OVC title (the Golden Eagles earned the top spot on a tiebreaker) since 1975.
"We’ve had a storied history in the past for football," said Brown, a native of Cookeville who played at Vanderbilt and has coached at Vanderbilt, Rice, and Alabama-Birmingham among other stops. "We won four straight OVC titles from 1958-61 and no one in the OVC has done that since. I watched that and was apart of all that. Our community is really excited to get that going again. Our kids are so ready to go. But one thing they have to realize is this is a brand new season for everybody."
"I know against this teams we can’t have the lapses in this game that we’ve had two or three times on the road this year," Conque said. "We can’t make those kinds of mistakes."
It’s UCA’s first playoff appearance since 2005, when it was a Division II member.
"What you have is two teams with contrasting styles of offense going against each other," Brown said. "But both teams are averaging more than 400 yards and 34 points of games. And we are doing that with completely different styles. That’s what makes college football the best thing going."