University of Central Arkansas football coach Clint Conque looked some of his biggest boosters in the eye Monday and gave them a dead-on look at the challenge and the opportunity this weekend.
The Bears (9-3) play the University of Montana (9-2) Saturday at Missoula, Mont., in the second round of the NCAA Division I FCS playoffs. The game will begin at 1 p.m. (CT) and will be broadcast on the internet on ESPN 3.
"This is bigtime football in Big Sky Country," Conque said at the weekly Bearbackers luncheon.
The Grizzlies are, year in and year out, one of the premier programs in FCS (formerly Division I-AA). They have won two national championship and have been in the national finals seven times. They defeated what was then the No. 1 team in the country (Montana State) on the final playing date of the season to gain the No. 4 seed in the playoffs.
"We will be playing at one of the great venues in all of college football (26,000-seat Washington-Grizzly Stadium) that has held crowds of 29,000)," Conque said. "It is one of the loudest stadiums in college football. The way the roof (upper deck) sits, the noise can’t get out and it ricochets back and forth, The fans are right on top of you. They have very knowledgeable fans. This is the flagship university."
The Grizzlies have made a habit of manhandling Southland Conference teams in the playoffs. In 2009, they defeated Stephen F. Austin, 51-0. In 2008, they downed Texas State, 31-13. In 2006, McNeese State was the victim, 31-6. In the 2004 semifinals, Montana romped past San Houston State, 34-13. In 2001, Northwestern State fell to the Grizzlies, 45-14 in the first round and Sam Houston State lost, 34-13 in the semifinals. In 1996, Nicholls was a 48-3 victim. In 1995, SFA was pounded 70-14 in the semifinals. McNeese State lost, 30-28, in the 1994 quarterfinals. That’s nine straight over SLC teams.
"We’re not going up there sightseeing; we’re not going to play checkers; we’re going up there to win a football game," Conque said. "We have a chance to put our program firmly in the national spotlight and maybe shock the nation."
The Bears are coming off a 34-14 victory over Tennessee Tech in the first round Saturday at Cookeville in which Conque described as "overall our most complete game of the season."
He attributed that to preparation.
"We had good practices Tuesday and Wednesday. Then Thursday, we fed them Thanksgiving dinner and practice 2 1/2 hours later and it was like driving stubborn cattle," Conque said. "But we traveled well: our players were very detailed, very organized. When we got to the stadium Friday for our practice, our players seemed to sense right away we were on a little different stage. We had a sharp, crisp, focused practice. I slept very well Friday night, thinking we would play the best we cold. And we came out with what I think was our most efficient game in all three phases."
He noted that the UCA offense, led by a 23-of-29 effort by quarterback Nathan Dick, was at 66 percent effectiveness on passing downs. "That is outstanding," Conque said. "That reflects on the detail and focus and dedication of our offensive football team."
The Bears held the Golden Eagles, a 200-yard rushing team, to 58 yards on the ground. UCA running back Jackie Hinton had 87. "We were also able to present a formidable running game," Conque said.
The coach noted the improvement in UCA’s run defense the last three games.
"One reason is Justin Williams (noseguard) is playing like the NFL prospect he is," Conque said. "And Frank Newsome (middle linebacker) is healthier. Jermaine Lett (defensive end) is playing at a high level. Our core 7 is doing a great job against the run."
"But we had problems on defense on possession downs," Conque said. "We gave up too many third-down conversions. We couldn’t get our defense off the football field with the consistency we want."
THE WIND: Conque had high praise for how his quarterback operated against the wind, noting Dick had only six incompletions and six of those were catchable balls.
"As long as the wind is not too strong, it is easier to throw into the wind," he said. "It forces the quarterback to transfer his weight through to drive the ball through the wind. Nathan is a big kid and did a good job with that. The problem with throwing with the wind is it’s hard to judge, after 30 or 40 yards, how far balls will carry with the wind."
THE ALTITUDE: Conque said the altitude at Missoula is about 3,000 feet and that the Bears will leave Thursday via charter aircraft and will have a time to get acclimated with a couple of outside practices. "It’s not like we’re playing on Pikes Peak," he said. "When I was at Louisiana Tech, we played at Wyoming and that was 7,000 feet and we carried oxygen for that game."
MONTANA AT MONTANA: The third-string quarterback for the Grizzlies is Nate Montana. He’s a son of Pro Football Hall of Famer Joe Montana and a transfer from Notre Dame.
TICKETS: No tickets for the game are available through UCA. The only way to purchase or reserve tickets, $26 each, is by calling 1-888-MONTANA (666-8262) or at www.gogriz.com.