The University of Central Arkansas Bears, wounded, staggering, bandaged, limping and fighting for their postseason lives under a black cloud, reached into the shadows and produced sunlight Saturday night.
Ryan Howard, subbing for injured Wynrick Smothers, led two fourth-quarter touchdown drives, backup receiver Courtney Whitehead made key catches (including a sensational grab for a touchdown with 2:53 left), tight end Thomas Hart came in during an emergency situation to catch a fourth-down touchdown pass. The UCA defense, led by ends Jonathan Woodard, Markeith Gaines and tackle Matt Hornbuckle, overcame a deflected extra-point attempt and help turn back a late drive to help the Bears survive a long road trip and ruin Lamar’s homecoming with a 26-24 victory at Beaumont, Texas.
It was a game the battered Bears (4-3, 1-1), who lost big-play tight end Chase Dixon to a broken right leg in the third quarter, had to win to stay in the Southland Conference race. Lamar. a fourth-year revived program, played Southland Conference favorite Sam Houston State to 14-3 last week, fell to 3-4, 0-2.
"This was about heart, desire, courage and dedication; it was a program win," said UCA coach Clint Conque afterwards. "This program is at the point that we need to go on the road and handle situations like this. We took the redshirts off two players this week. This was an emotional win. I didn’t know who the heck was in the game half the time."
Dixon, who caught a touchdown pass from Howard to tie the game at 10 early in the second half, was carted off the field in a bubble cast after he was injured later in the quarter. The entire UCA team ran onto the field to salute him or pat him on the pads. He visibly encouraged them to go and win.
The initial diagnosis was a broken fibula in his right leg, adding to an incredible growing list of season-ending injuries to UCA starters.
"Sometimes tragedy and adversity bonds a team and I think we bonded well," said Conque. "This is a close-knit group."
Smothers, the returning SLC Offensive Player of the year, broke his right ankle last week. Running back Willie Matthews did not play because of a staph infection in his elbow. Injured wide receiver Dezmin Lewis tried to return but limped off the field after one play.
After Lamar, which led 10-3 and held UCA to 108 yards of offense at the half, took a 17-10 lead in the third quarter, Howard passed 3 yards to Thomas Hart, Dixon’s backup, for a touchdown on fourth down to tie the score.
After quarterback Caleb Berry sparked a 90-yard touchdown drive that put the Cardinals up 24-20 with 6:35 left, Howard went to work with a Smothers-type, backs-to-the-wall drive. First-and-goal at the 3 turned into first-and-25 after an offensive interference penalty against Whitehead that nullified a touchdown. On third down at the Lamar 24, Whitehead maneuvered in double coverage and caught the ball while falling down for the go-head touchdown. However, Eddie Camara, who booted field goals of 35 and 31 yards, had the extra point attempt deflected and bounce off the crossbar, giving Lamar an opening at 26-24 with 2:53 left.
With the Cards needing only a field goal to win, Berry led Lamar to second-and-two at the UCA 33. Under pressure from the UCA defense, he threw three straight completions. Short-yardage quarterback Jacoby Walker took two knees to run out the clock as the players on the UCA sideline leaped for joy.
Howard, who alternated with Taylor Reed in the first half, then took over most of the second half, completed 26 of 40 passes for 281 yards and two touchdowns.
"Our philosophy is to get the next guy ready and (quarterback coach) Nathan Brown did a great job of getting them ready," said Conque.
The Bears have their homecoming game against Stephen F. Austin on Saturday.