COOKEVILLE, Tenn. — The University of Central Arkansas Bears went from the shadow of their goal posts twice and headed from windy west Tennessee to the glittering mountains of Montana on Saturday.
The Bears’ 34-14 victory over Tennessee Tech in the first round of the NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision playoffs here not only made history, not only was the Bears eighth straight win but propelled them into a round of 16 match in Missoula, Mont., next week against the University of Montana.
Rojae Jackson, a special teams player, held a sign on a dry erase board of "See y’all in Montana" in front of the UCA pep band as a giant celebration got in gear.
UCA (9-3) has not lost since October against Sun Belt champion Arkansas State.
"At this level it’s about momentum," UCA coach Clint Conque said. "ESPN ‘Game Day’ is not coming to Conway and we’re not going to play in front of 50,000 or 60,000 people. That’s what motivates young people.
"But I haven’t seen any satisfaction yet on these players’ faces. This was a tremendous benchmark, but it’s not over."
Saturday’s victory was the Bears’ third win in NCAA playoff history. They won two games in the 2005 playoffs in Division II.
The Bears took controlled of this early with a 17-play, 77-yard drive for a touchdown on their second possession and a 97-yard drive that culminated in a touchdown right before the half.
"I thought we could mix it up," Conque said. "It was partly the presence of a run game (120 yards, 37 carries). You get 4, 5 or 6 yards on first down, it sets up play-action. We were able to put pressure on their defense. We needed to come in and match their physicality. We kept our quarterback clean."
UCA was 9 of 14 on third-down conversions and 1 of 1 on fourth downs.
"It all came down to domination of the line of scrimmage," said Tennessee Tech coach Watson Brown, whose team finished 7-4.
Nathan Dick, who completed 23 of 29 passes for 439 yards, was brilliant on the 17-play drive into a gusty wind, completing eight straight passes to five different receivers at one points. When things settled into power in the red zone, Terence Bobo scored the touchdown on a 1-yard run. The 77-yard drive consumed 8:26 and put UCA up 7-0 with 7:16 left in the half.
"I thought our offensive line played very well," Dick said. "We were able to run the ball and set up our receivers for one-on-one matchups. We were playing a disciplined team, we had to take care of the ball."
After a 25-yard field goal by Eddie Carmara after UCA recovered a fumble on the opening kickoff, Tech drove 80 yards in 14 plays to draw within 10-7 and the Golden Eagle fans got pretty revved up when a put the Bears on the one.
Dick then found Isaiah Jackson down the sideline for 51 yards and that took care of any building joy. Passes to Dominque Croom and a tackle-breaking run by Jackie Hinton led to Dick’s 1-yard sneak to put UCA up 17-7 with 1:55 left in the half.
"The game was decided on two big drives," Dick said. "We had them backed up and they took the ball the distance both times. That’s a possible 14-point swing."
UCA put the Golden Eagles against the ropes, driving 58 yards in 13 plays to a 35-yard field goal by Eddie Carmara on their first possession of the second half. The Bears pretty much finished the Golden Eagles off when Dick hit Jesse Grandy along the sideline on a wheel rout that had misdirection. The 42-yard pass put UCA up 27-7 with 4:50 left in the third quarter.
After Tennessee Tech drove 94 yards for a touchdown, the Bears applied the knockout blow on a 30-yard pass from Dick to Thomas Hart that capped an 87-yard drive.
"The pass to Grandy was something we had worked on all week," Dick said. "We felt it could go if we had a chance to use it."
UCA’s victory rendered the Golden Eagles one-dimensional limiting them to 58 yards on 28 plays and 291 passing.
"We had worked very hard on stopping the run," UCA linebacker Seth Allison said.
"I had complained all season about our open date occurring at the end of the season," Conque said. "As it turned out, it was beneficial."