HAMMOND, La. — The University of Central Arkansas Bears showed up on a gorgeous windy Halloween afternoon with two really strong feet.
Southeastern Louisiana countered with some understudies who performed like pros, a troupe of dancing defenders and a couple of fast-moving bandits.
And the Bears gave out turnovers for treats that gave Southeastern energy for a 25-21 victory at Strawberry Stadium, the Bears’ third loss of the season and one that sent them tumbling to the middle of the pack in the Southland Conference race.
The Lions (5-3, 3-1), with a senior quarterback and their top two receivers out with injuries, made an assortment of big third-down plays and used a blitzing defense to intercept UCA quarterback Robbie Park three times, the last in the end zone with 48 seconds left.
UCA place-kicker Eddie Carmona kept the Bears hanging on with field goals of 33, 34, 40 and 36 yards, the last that gave UCA its only lead at 19-17 with 1:04 left in the third quarter. Jon Beard had punts of 66 and 77 yards, benefitting from a gusty, 11-mile-an-hour wind.
Combined with Stephen F. Austin’s loss at Texas State, the Lions’ bewitching antics threw the SLC race into a muddle with four teams now at the top with one loss — SFA, Texas State, McNeese State and Southeastern Louisiana. UCA fell to 5-3, 2-2.
"When a big play was need on second down, third down, second-and-long, third-and-long, they made them on both sides of the football," Bears coach Clint Conque said. "We didn’t have the efficiency we needed, and their blitzes and line movement had a lot to do with that."
"I think our defense was playing with a little bit of a chip on its shoulder after we had games like 51-50 and 36-35," Southeastern coach Mike Lucas said. "I told our defense that the strength of Central Arkansas is its defense, and we couldn’t get in a scoring match with them.
"Our defensive front is not as big as their offensive front and UCA’s tackles are awfully good. The best way we thought we could stop their run game (137 yards) was to move people around a lot of defense. Their offensive tackles are awfully good. I challenged our defensive line, saying they were going against the best offensive line in the league."
"We had the size advantage but they are awfully quick on defense," Conque said.
The challenge was met bigtime on the game’s final major stand, when UCA drove to third-and-2 at the SLU 9, trailing 25-19 with 1:01 left. Mark Newbill and Tramaine Lucas met the Bears’ Brent Grimes and threw him for a 2-yard loss. On fourth down, the SLU defense applied a lot of pressure to Park, forcing him to throw early and off his back foot. The dying pass was picked off in the end zone by Re’Keem Wilson, his second major interception in nine minutes. SLU took a safety in the final seconds to preserve its first victory over UCA in three outings.
"I’m not sure if it was a blitz or just the effect of their line movement on those plays," Conque said. "They got penetration, and Robbie had to throw the fourth-down pass much earlier than he wanted to."
The Lions were playing without senior quarterback Brian Babin, who injured a shoulder last week against McNeese State. Preseason all-conference wide receiver Simmie Yarborough and their second-leading receiver Merrick Lanuax sat out the game with injuries.
Chris Wilson, Kory Theodore and Luis Sobalvarro all stepped through the open door. Wilson had 163 yards on six receptions and two touchdowns, including a 64-yarder from backup quarterback Tyler Beatty, who began his career at Baylor and was making his first start for the Lions. Theodore caught seven passes for 74 yards and a touchdown and Sabalvarro had three receptions, most in key situations.
Beatty, a 6-4, 210-pound junior, completed 23 of 35 passes for 297 yards and three touchdowns.
"We knew Chris would have a big ballgame because we felt we could isolate him on a couple of their corners," Lucas said. "Their corners have a tendency to do some things that we felt that if we got the right matchups, we could take advantage of. There’s not much difference between Chris and Simmie. And at the beginning of last year, Sabolvarro was first team and Simmie was second, then Luis got hurt. Playing Tyler didn’t change our offensive plan a bit except that when we had a set play for Brian on a handoff, we let Tyler read it."
"I know about what kind of athletes they have down here; this is a great recruiting area," Conque said. "Wilson is a great receiver, but the bottom line is we didn’t get it done. We were in position to make plays and didn’t. Their receivers played the ball well and we didn’t. But we all share the blame. I needed to have prepared this team better."
Wilson scored his first touchdown on a deep sideline pass in which he broke two arm-tackle attempts for a 61-yard touchdown that followed an 48-yard field goal by Jeff Turner on the Lions’ first possession that gave the Lions at 10-0 first quarter lead.
After two Carmona field goals, Theodore timed a sideline right perfectly to make a 37-yard reception in front of Jamie Hill. He followed that with a 12-yard reception for a touchdown that pushed the Southeastern lead to 17-6 that Carmona narrowed with a career-best 40-yard field goal before the half.
"We got into the red zone, but we then had the tendency to trade touchdowns or field goals and you can’t do that," Conque said.
The Bears began the third quarter with a 47-yard drive in which Grimes carried four straight times and got most of his 83 yards, the last 6 for a touchdown that tied the UCA record held by Kentrel Rogers.
A fumble recovery by Zach Hyatt later in the third quarter set up Carmona’s fourth field goal, which gave UCA a 19-17 lead with 1:04 left in the third quarter.
A holding penalty set the Bears back on an early drive in the fourth quarter. Under pressure and with what Conque described as a miscommunication, Park toss a sideline pass that went right to Wilson, who returned to the UCA 28. Beatty connected with Wilson on a deep fade in the corner of the end zone that Anthony Gambles had well-covered and the SLU receiver just clipped the corner of the end zone with apparent control of the ball.
The Lions went for two, and Beatty passed to Sabalvarro over the middle.
"Tyler made a great read because the play was supposed to go left but he read the linebackers and found the receiver to the right," Lucas said.
Park ran out of pressure and passed 59 yards to Preston Echols to set up UCA’s final thrust.
"We dug oursevles a hole the first half," Conque said. "We hung in there and kept fighting but you’ve got to be more efficient we were to win games like this. We gave ourselves a chance but we have nobody to blame but ourselves."
Leonard Ceaser had the next best rushing game to Grimes for the Bears with 83 yards. Park, forced to hurry many times, was 19 of 40 for 223 yards and three interceptions.
The Bears return home Saturday night to play Texas State in a regional television matchup.