University of Central Arkansas coach Clint Conque is relying of the history of the Southland Conference and the resiliency of his team to break in positive ways.
He has evidence for both.
UCA’s 33-30 loss to Stephen F. Austin on Saturday put the Bears at 1-1 in the league with five games to go. The Bears are in good company. The top three teams in the preseason polls (UCA, McNeese State and Texas State) are all 1-1 after two games.
When the Southland has had eight teams over its 46-year history, only four (Louisiana-Monroe in 1992, McNeese State in 1993 and 2007 and Troy in 2000) have finished undefeated and untied in league play.
Only one other team (McNeese 2002) has been unbeaten and untied in SLC play when conference has consisted of at least seven teams. Only two other teams (McNeese in 1995 and McNeese in 2003) have been unbeaten and untied since 1992, and those particular years the SLC had six teams.
Bottom line, it’s hard to navigate through the SLC without a blemish when the SLC has eight teams as it does now. A very good UCA team couldn’t do it last year.
There are usually too many deep-seeded rivalries, too many talented skill players and too many good teams overall for a team to survive seven weeks of league play.
SFA seems to have put itself in good position with the rare double of having defeated McNeese State and UCA in successive weeks and becoming only the fourth team to defeat the Bears at home in 30 games. However, the Lumberjacks now have a target on their backs and that’s dangerous in league play.
Generally, the Bears played pretty well against SFA, one of the most prolific offenses in the country. But they imploded on punting, giving the Lumberjacks a very short field after three major blunders, including a blocked punt that was recovered at the 1.
The percentages are overwhelming in college football that a team that blocks a punt wins almost every time.
What may be significant is what happened to UCA after SFA drove one yard for a touchdown to take a 30-20 lead with 12:54 left.
That would have finished most teams. Many onlookers considered the game to be over.
UCA kicked it up a notch and gave fans one of the most exciting contests to be played in Estes Stadium.
The Bears drove to the SFA 27 before a drive stalled with a personal foul penalty and ended on an interception on an overthrown ball by Robbie Park.
The Lumberjacks drove to the UCA 23, then James Lancaster blocked a field goal attempt.
The Bears used two great catches by James Lovett and Dominque Croom to drive to a 25-yard field goal by Eddie Carmona to pull within 30-23 with 1:09 left.
The Bears got a huge break when a personal foul penalty against SFA allowed UCA to kick off from their 45 instead of their 30. That was big not only because of field position but it allowed Carmona to attempt an onside kick on solid, rather than mushy ground, and he was able to get a much higher bounce.
Then, Carmona and James Lovett executed a "frame it" onside kick and UCA recovered on the SFA 44.
Park and Echols connected on a 44-yard touchdown pass that pulled the Bears even with 49 seconds left. The irony was that it might have been better if the reception had been inside the 5, where UCA could have better drained the clock.
More about the final seconds later.
What we saw in the comeback was the character and determination — and possibly the heart — of this UCA team.
Most teams would have folded under the devastation of a blocked punt against a good team.
"We kept playing hard, we kept making plays, one at a time," Conque said. "You just have to keep fighting."
Saturday’s defeat resembled the loss to Hawaii in the sense that UCA had rallied and put itself to win in the final two minutes. In the Hawaii game, the Bears gave up a 66-yard pass that led to an 8-yard touchdown that proved the difference.
In the SFA game, the Lumberjacks’ winning drive was fueled by a 25-yard pass-and-run from Jeremy Moses to Duane Brooks in which most of the yardage occurred after the catch. There also a 28-yard pass to Aaron Rhea that the SFA receiver double-tipped and caught lying on his back. Earlier, Lovett had kept a UCA drive alive with a tipped pass.
"I remember in the close losses we’ve had that were decided on almost the last play of the game — SFA and Hawaii this year, Nicholls State last year, Northwestern State in 2007, Missouri State in 2006 and Tennessee-Martin in 2005 — they all came down to execution or a breakdown on the last drive of the game," Conque said. "We’ve got to be more aware in those situations and be conscious of getting our defense off the field. We’ve got to learn how to finish."
Saturday, the Bears almost finished in dramatic fashion.
UCA trailed 33-30 and took over on its 34 with the only hope of a miracle pass.
Interesting, the Bears pulled off a volleyball-type strategy. The plan was for the UCA receivers to double-tip a deep ball and see what would happen. The second was not quite high enough and fell just short of T.J. Adams, who was 5 yards behind the SFA defense.
The Bears almost pulled it off.
"These are the toughest losses to swallow," Conque said. "They just rip your guts out."
(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 505-1235 or firstname.lastname@example.org)