HAMMOND, La. — The Southeastern Louisiana came armed with tricks, but the University of Central Arkansas Bears got the treat Saturday night at Strawberry Stadium.
Quarterback Wynrick Smothers connected with Jesse Grandy for two second-half passes, linebacker Seth Allison stopped two drives with interceptions and the Lions shot themselves in the foot with a penalty that made a 53-yard difference in field position as the Bears cleared a path to a possible outright Southland Conference championship with a 34-14 victory.
The loss was the first for SLU (3-5, 4-1) in the league race and pushed UCA to 7-2, 5-1. If the Bears defeat Northwestern State at home next week, they will clinch the outright conference title and automatic NCAA FCS playoff berth after McNeese State’s victory over Stephen F. Austin, the only league team to defeat UCA. The Bears finished the regular season a week earlier than the other SLC teams and have head-to-head victories over both Southeastern and Sam Houston State, the only other one-loss teams.
"We had a good week of preparation; our players responded to the challenges of our coaching staff," said coach Clint Conque. "We had to endure some rough seas in the third quarter, but I think we saw a really good football team respond with the resiliency to finish the game the right way."
The Lions, on their homecoming, hung on for the longest with a variety of gadget plays, one that set up a touchdown.
Using a long touchdown pass from Wynrick Smothers to Jesse Grandy to begin the second half and a drive-killing interception by Seth Allison, the Bears were hanging on with a 24-14 lead in the fourth quarter. Then, a 38-yard pass from Nathan Stanley to Tony McRae to the UCA 32 was called back because an illegal block. Instead of having the ball near the red zone, Southeastern was penalized back to its 15. That set up a 48-yard scoring pass from Smothers to Grandy that represented the dagger, giving UCA the 31-14 lead midway through the fourth quarter.
Eddie Camara provided a further cushion with a 37-yard field goal for a 34-14 lead with 1:18 left.
"Our defense played exceptionally well," said Conque. "Seth (two interceptions) sometimes tries to do more than one job, but when he does his job, he’s a pretty good football player."
UCA established control quickly.
With the offensive line controlling the trenches, the Bears mixed their plays nicely in driving 66 yards in 12 plays on their first possession. Jackie Hinton broke 12 yards for the touchdown to give UCA a 7-0 lead with 8:25 left in the first quarter.
Smothers connected with tight end Chase Dixon for 15 yards to the Southeastern 8. Two plays later, he passed 7 yards to give the Bears a 14-0 lead with 8:31 left in the second quarter.
They didn’t allowed the Lions to sustain much in taking the 14-0 lead into halftime.
It took five seconds in the second half for the Bears to expand their lead as Smothers passed 60 yards to Grandy for a touchdown.
Then, the Lions pulled out one of their biggest tricks. Xavier Roberson broke 36 yards on a swinging-gate play that set up Nathan Stanley’s 9-yard pass to McRae to draw Southeastern within 21-7 with 11:23 left in the third quarter.
Late in the quarter, the Lions, with momentum, drove to the UCA 17 before Allison’s interception.
The Lions regained the momentum with a 60-yard drive in eight plays, capped by a 20-yard pass from Stanley to Roberson to draw within 21-14 at 4:29 of the third quarter.
But UCA responded with a jab, a 56-yard, 10-play drive to Eddie Camara’s 26-yard field goal for a 24-14 lead with 11:57 left in the fourth quarter.
Homecoming at Estes Stadium will begin at 7 p.m. Saturday.