Let’s get real.
As great as that University of Central Arkansas football season was — 10-2 and undefeated Southland Conference champions — the wound from Saturday’s 21-15 loss to New Hampshire in the FCS playoffs smarts a lot.
"Last year’s loss to Eastern Washington hurt, but not like this one does," UCA coach Steve Campbell told Bearbackers on Monday.
UCA probably wins a best-of-three series. But New Hampshire just had to figure out how to win one of one.
A veteran coach, Steve Campbell learns a little something from every defeat.
This year’s journey started with a 59-23 trouncing at Sam Houston State last season in a matchup of unbeaten teams in the Southland Conference.
"That ripped our hearts out," Campbell said. "We traveled to Sam Houston, thought we were ready and we weren’t. We learned a lot from that game, then came back this year and used what we learned to beat those guys. We were able to take that next step and win the conference and go undefeated in conference."
The UCA coaches have evaluated what happened Saturday in the defeat to the Wildcats, who are moving to the quarterfinals with a 9-4 record.
"I learned that the Colonial Athletic Association (home to New Hampshire and defending national champion and No.1-ranked James Madison) is a good football conference," Campbell said. "I knew that going in but you really find that out when you play."
One difference was size. Most linemen in the SLC who are near 300 pounds are in the 6-1, 6-2 range. New Hampshire’s were in the 6-4 range and wide-shouldered and stout and granite-solid. The Wildcats up front were representative of teams that have given UCA the most trouble in recent years.
The bye week had both an upside and a downside for the Bears. They needed a rest after playing nine straight weeks. The negative was the break came when the team seemed to be peaking and hitting on all cylinders. It broke the rhythm. It’s like a basketball team that shoots lights-out the first half, goes into the locker room at the half, and turns into a different team that can’t buy a basket.
But probably the main lesson Campbell and his coaches learned was patience.
"We’re not gonna blow everybody out," he said. "We have to find a way to win 10-7 games."
The Bears came into the game averaging 37.2 points a game with as efficient and balanced offense as you’ll see.
However, UCA may have gotten a false reading on its offensive firepower and a false sense of security during the latter part of the season when they faced to bottom part of the SLC.
The Bears won their last three games by 42-14 over Lamar 56-10 over Incarnate Word and 34-0 over Abilene Christian. Those teams were a combined 5-28. UCA had those teams so outmanned it could dominate while making little mistakes. Those were teams that UCA’s offense, defense and kicking game all had the chance to click nicely.
Maybe things came too easily late in the season.
Take UCA’s last five games. the Bears downed Northwestern State, 45-17, and McNeese State, 47-17. McNeese was a solid team defensively but the Bears had more firepower and it was one of those games UCA got hot and couldn’t do much wrong.
So, UCA’s last competitive game was on Oct. 14 in a 24-20 win over Stephen F. Austin. That was a tightly played field position game similar to New Hampshire but UCA had the Lumberjacks a outmanned overall, particularly up front, and got a break or two at crunch time.
New Hampshire has been to the NCAA FCS playoffs 14 straight years, playing in a variety of scenarios. Wildcat coach Sean McDonnell has learned how to win dull and ugly.
Saturday, the Wildcats lost their starting quarterback and catalyst Trevor Knight at 9:06 of the second quarter. They had to figure out a way to win a with a strong defense, field position game with a seldom used backup quarterback Christian Lupoli. They also lost a safety during the game and were involved in a tight contest having missed six of seven field goal attempts.
They gave Lupoli a very conservative package reliant on not giving up anything cheap, then relying on a defense to keep UCA’s offense in check. They played n0t t0 lose and waited from some breaks, which came on an interception return off a tipped pass for a touchdown and a 16-yard punt that provided field position for the winning touchdown. The UNH preserved things by forcing a fumble when the Bears were seemingly putting together a winning drive.
The Wildcats did exactly what they needed to do (nothing colorful or fancy) to win the game in the situation they were thrust. They were perfectly comfortable to bide their time and win a low-scoring game, opportunistically waiting for the opening.
The Bears came into the games thriving on home runs — a hit a couple of long pass plays to Cedric Battle.
Even on its two touchdown drives, New Hampshire prevailed with small ball — singles, bunts, sacrifices, steals and defense.
At playoff time, championship teams have to use whatever strategy and find a way.