The University of Central Arkansas’ victory over two-time NCAA runner-up Sam Houston State on Saturday was satisfying but not completely filling.
The Bears (7-5) completed a winning season but finished outside of the top 25 and will watch from the outside in the postseason playoffs for the first time in two seasons.
Three teams from the Southland Conference made the postseason in the expanded 24-team field. Southeastern Louisiana and McNeese State, both of whom manhandled the Bears, were among the eight seeds with first-round byes.
Sam Houston State also made the field, despite the 49-31 thumping at Conway.
Most Sam Houston State officials believed the loss to UCA would knock the Bearkats out of the playoffs. However, the Bearkats had a nice body of work the past two seasons that kept them in the eyes of both voters and selection committee members and were ranked in the top 10 all season before last week. They also benefitted from several upsets of ranked teams Saturday that even resulted in a 5-6 team (Lafayette) earning the Patriot League’s automatic berth as the conference champion.
One 7-5 team made the field and it also did it by securing an automatic bid (Furman in the wild Southern Conference). New Hampshire, of the highly regarded and tradition-rich Colonial Athletic Association, finished 7-4 and probably got in with a dominating victory Saturday over Maine, which finished 10-2 and won the league title.
A loss to Northwestern State three weeks ago knocked UCA out of the top 25 and off the radar, damaging the Bears’ postseason hopes because it left too much ground to make up and too many teams to jump in too few games.
However, I think the most damaging defeat for UCA was the 24-23 loss at UT-Martin, a team from a conference (Ohio Valley) that has had very little success on the national stage in the past decade. UT-Martin also finished 7-5 but was thumped 70-22 in the season finale against second-ranked Eastern Illinois. The Bears also lost to the Skyhawks when they had most of their team intact before an avalanche of ACL tears, broken bones and other injuries hit.
The Bears got the breaks this year, but the wrong kind.
It was a bittersweet finish for a team that went into the season thinking it had a solid chance of contending for a national title before losing All-America candidate quarterback Wynrick Smothers and NFL prospect tight end Chase Dixon to season-ending injuries.
In the face of all that, this may have been one of the best coaching jobs by UCA coach Clint Conque and his staff in 14 seasons at UCA.
It’s extremely challenging to put together a winning season and finish with a triumph over a two-time national runner-up when not a whole lot is going right — when Murphy’s Law seemed to shroud the whole schedule and when the Bears played their last three games with one healthy running back.
This season demanded creativity beyond belief.
But the Bears kept scrapping and enduring and competing. In the face of such a steep incline, 7-5 is pretty darn good, maybe the best that could be achieved. If a couple of things go the other way, this UCA team could have easily finished 4-8 or 5-7.
What UCA observers witnessed in the stretch run of the season was Matthews becoming a bellcow back, even a punishing back — capping things with 89 yards rushing, 55 yards on eight receptions and a rushing and passing touchdown against Sam Houston.
They saw junior Damien Watts become the Bears’ most consistent receiver. Ryan Howard and Taylor Reed, none of whom had had experience as starters at quarterback for UCA, became a good combination in place of Smothers. Redshirt freshman Bailey McIver and true freshmen Jordan Toliver and Terrence Partee grew up under fire in the defensive line.
And the upperclassmen players kept it together despite nagging, but less-serious injuries to some of their counterparts.
They didn’t crack. Dominque Allen, a lineman, endured as the only senior on offense to finish the season. The poster child for that was defensive back Marcus Peters, who intercepted two passes against Sam Houston and returned one for a touchdown. He’ll share the spotlight with Justin Heard, who had one of the best six-game stretch to close the season of any linebacker in UCA history.
With veterans still giving effort, young players emerging and several players elevating their games, the foundation held despite a series of bombshell injuries.
What happened in the latter part of the season, when the Bears had little tangible to play for, was energizing and generated hope.
A lot of folks, including several who ended up on the sidelines with injuries, are set to return next year — with experience. What should be encouraging is the injury bug, which did damage of epidemic proportions to frontline players this year, might gravitate to another part of the continent next year.
(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 501-505-1235 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on twitter @dmaclcd)