One statistic probably illustrated the similarities and differences in the University of Central Arkansas football differences.
The irony of the contrast may blindside UCA fans as much as it initially did coach Clint Conque.
The Bears were characterized by a penalty-prone team on the way to a 5-7 record that included a season-ending five straight defeats. UCA had incurred 96 penalties in 12 games.
Quick quiz. How many penalties did the Bears incur in posting a Southland Conference best 10-2 mark the year before?
Eighty-seven for 815. Only nine fewer for 901 yards. That’s fewer than one penalty for 7 yards a game.
"The penalties seem worse because they were magnified," Conque said. "Last year, we’d get a penalty and we’d have first and 20 and Nathan Brown would hit Marquez Branson or Willie Landers or Eric Ware with a pass, and we’d pretty much overcome the penalty. We were not able to do that last year. It was crucial this year that we had to stay ahead of the chains (not having to go more than 10 yards for a first down)."
In the past couple of weeks, Conque has reflected a lot of the factors that contributed to UCA’s first losing season since 2003. It’s an diversified, imperfect storm of issues that formed a perfect storm to dismantle a winning season. One or two of them would probably not have a great effect. But collectively, these various developments produced a steep incline.
One thing Conque made clear in a recent interview is he has written down some observations, but he doesn’t intend to use them as excuses.
"The bottom line is we didn’t get it done," he said. "It’s my job to see that it gets done. It comes back to me, and I’m not running away from that responsibility. I’m not making excuses."
But he analyzes and reflects on every season.
"Postseason evaluations are nothing new in college football," he said. "After every season, you need to sit down and ask, ‘What do we need to do to get better?’"
This past season, in which the Bears lost seven games by 23 points (none by more than five) is a tricky situation.
"I think the worst thing I can do is overreact," Conque said. "We were not a bad football team this season. We did a lot of good things. Every game we lost, we had a chance to win or tie in the last two minutes. Every coach will take that."
But in reflecting, he categorized the issues. Some were freak developments. Others, he feels he can better control.
"Our discipline was not where it needed to be, and that takes on a lot different faces," he said. "We had penalties and many of them were at very inopportune times. Some penalties occurred because of effort and I can accept those. Others were selfish penalties and that reflects on a leadership dynamic."
The most telling illustration came in the kicking game where the Bears had two winning field goal attempts blocked in the final moments, had two punts blocked that cost them dearly in two games, botched a snap, turned a North Dakota field goal into a touchdown drive with a penalty and had a botched fake punt attempt that turned the game around.
"During the first half of the season our kicking game was solid," Conque said. "Then we began having leaks. We’d get one leak plugged and a different leak would spring. We’d fix that and a different leak sprung. We’d fix that and a different leak sprung. We’d fix that, then one of the old ones would spring again.
"We had a large senior class and we may have gotten caught up in that and we took for granted some things and assumed some things. We assumed that experienced players would realize and know to do certain things. We should have made sure we had covered some things in more detail."
The UCA staff had four new coaches, including both coordinators.
That meant an inevitable transition. And some of the upperclassmen UCA players had three or four positions coaches during their tenure at UCA.
"We had different people taking on different roles, and it was a transition for the coaches to find their fit," Conque said. "Now, our staff got along great, and I thought we worked together well. The staff worked hard and got along fine. But some of us had not been together long. We brought in one coach (Dan Augustine) in late summer. There’s a natural bonding process that takes time. When you have new people and people in different roles, it takes awhile for folks to be comfortable in the roles we all have. When have changes on a staff, some people are initially hesitant or tentative about stepping over what they think are boundaries."
One example concerned new quarterback coach Buster Faulkner, whom Conque gave more and more of the play-calling responsibilities as the season went on.
Conque said, "The last few games, I didn’t call many plays, and coach Faulkner did a good job and I thought we became more efficient in our play-calling. He developed a good feel for our philosophy and scheme ... There was significant transition this year, but I thought the chemistry was good. It just takes time."
The two key ones occurred early. UCA lost Willie Landers, its best deep threat and go-to receiver, to a season-ending knee injury the first practice. An recurring injury to fullback Nick Cowger ended his senior season.
"In Landers, we lost a 6-foot-2 receiver who was a speed threat, could stretch the field and who could beat man coverage," Conque said. "That took away our deep threat. When we lost Cowger, we lost a pass-catching threat at fullback. His replacement (Chris McKnight) did a fine job blocking, but he was not as skilled catching the ball out of the backfield. So, that took away one of our best red-zone threats along the edge. Some of our field goals might have turned into touchdown if we would have had the pass-catching ability of Cowger from the H back or fullback spot."
Those injuries magnified a couple of things that happened two or three years ago. This year, the ideal situation would be to have had Landers as a deep threat on one side and David Robinson, who was outstanding his freshman year, on the other, both as seasoned senior receivers. Robinson became an academic casualty and left during his sophomore year.
"That was compounded in recruiting two or three years ago when we just missed on a couple of bonafide big-play receivers. We got caught short at receiver this year and that was our fault as coaches on some of our recruiting decisions and we paid the price this year. Now, we had some good things happened. Preston Echols responded well, and Isaiah Jackson really grew and matured as a receiver, especially after he had a bad game against Texas State. We think (freshman) Dominque Croom is a great prospect, but we would have liked to have brought him along this year at his own pace."
"With a lot of seniors and experienced players returning, we probably didn’t address fundamentals as much as we needed to," Conque said. "We assumed some players knew some things that they didn’t. We were not as solid as we should have been in some areas. Some things didn’t get fixed because we assumed some things fundamentally."
Basic execution was more important this season because of the lack of home run threats.
"You’ll notice we have very few drives this year of five plays or fewer," Conque said. "We had to have drives of eight, 10, 12, even 14 and 16 plays and even to go short distances. When you don’t have the quick-strike ability, you have to be more efficient."
The Bears were 85 percent in the red zone in their last six games.
"We were about as good in the red zone as last year," Conque said, "it was just we had to settle a lot for field goals instead of getting touchdowns."
After a trip to Hawaii, the Bears played on 11 straight weekends, and three of their last four games were long road trips (to Southeastern Louisiana, Sam Houston State and McNeese State). The last five games on the schedule offered tougher challenges than the first seven.
"We may have even peaked too soon," Conque said. "We played well at Hawaii and very well in beating Western Kentucky. We played almost a perfect game against Northwestern State and came back after a loss to run over Nicholls in one of our best games. Things began unraveling when we went to Southeastern and they had a really good plan against us, then they really came apart against Sam Houston when we made all kinds of mistakes in all phases and they had a defensive plan we could not counter. That was the low point, but we came back to outplay McNeese for the most part, in my opinion, and lost on a couple of big plays.
"But the problem when things start happening like this is our players lose a little confidence every time and eventually when things start happening, they start thinking, ‘what will happen next?’ rather than thinking about making a play."
Conque considers the rainy, stormy weather in early fall a lesser factor but an element nevertheless.
"We weren’t able to practice outside much in September and October," he said. "We have a good indoor facility, but not being able to get outside on our field with the whole team too much kept things a bit disjointed.
Conque said he is examining everything related to the program, including practice, schemes, training, stretching.
There will be stronger emphasis on leadership development.
"We had some players this year who tried to lead and some good individuals leaders, but the leadership was more scattered and segmented rather than coming together as a whole," Conque said. "When you have 23 seniors, there is more noise."
Conque and his staff are creating a leadership council in which players from every class will have a voice in choosing members of the council, which Conque will meet regularly with to address concerns in the program.
"I think that gives players more ownership in what we’re doing because they have a voice," he said. "I want the players to identify some of their leaders. And that leadership council will have a part in deciding how we treat various issues. For example, how do we treat selfish penalties or give more accountability to fundamental mistakes that are being made over and over. How do we better manage all the working parts within our program?"
While some coaching transition is inevitable on the Division I Football Championship Subdivision level, Conque is not planning to replace any coaches.
"As our coaches become more confident in their roles, I will expand their roles," he said.
He knows he can’t control injuries.
"But I can control depth and competition," he said. "For example, we got caught short at receiver this year, but I don’t intend for that to happen again. We will probably bring in four, maybe five, wide receivers in this year’s recruiting class to go with what we have, which includes the return of Landers for next season."
He’s entering the offseason and recruiting season with renewed energy.
"We as a coaching staff are committed to getting this right," he said. "I’m exciting about what we can do in player development and molding some of these younger players into what we want them to be."