University of Central Arkansas coach Clint Conque walked into the interview room Saturday — heart glowing, ribs aching — and said through a grimace, "Don’t ask me about the game, I have no idea what happened."
The Bears’ 28-24 victory over McNeese State, with many rough edges on the outside but with a delicious filling, had a weird ebb and flow.
UCA built a 21-0 lead within 7:05 at First Security Field at Estes Stadium, then couldn’t get past midfield for more than two hours. A shootout of a first quarter (35 points) turned into an old-school, tactical, field position type of game. The Bears, who appeared locked in quicksand and mired in the shadow of their goal posts for most of three quarters, found a gear in the final four minutes.
UCA had 350 yards of total offense and 124 yards on 14 penalties, including three unsportsmanlike fouls within two minutes and two on the same play plus having one player (Henry Minor) ejected after a personal foul.
"It was an emotional game," said Conque. "We got a bit chippy. We were too amped at times."
And all that madness came down to one series, one play.
The Cowboys had first and goal at the UCA 4 after a 23-yard pass completion from Jacob Bower to Wes Briscoe. After a rush for no gain, Bower was incomplete on two pass attempts, one that went through the hands of fullback Drew Johnston, who was backpedaling in the end zone.
Fourth down. No timeouts. 25 seconds left.
Conque exhorted the defense during a timeout.
"I stressed seam coverage and that we couldn’t let a receiver get inside and I told the line to keep their hands up," Conque said.
Bower rolled out, ran out of a sack, pump-faked twice and headed for the sideline on a play that took seconds but seemed like minutes. For a second, it seemed like he was going to keep, then he fired a pass that UCA linebacker Tok Opeloye slapped away along the McNeese sidelne, setting off a dancing celebration by the Bears that drew another unsportsmanlike penalty that they cared little about.
"It was just being at the right place at the right time," Opeloye said. "I was expecting a run and I was kinda nervous. When I saw pass on took on my responsibility. When they broke containment, I decided to go to the sideline and see what I could do to help and I knocked it down. I made the place and got off the field."
During the postgame celebration, Conque sustained the major injury of the game. He injured some ribs in practice the week before in demonstrating some coverage techniques to defensive backs.
"They were getting better until Matt Williamson (defensive coordinator) came up after the game and hugged me and I felt something snap and go ‘girglegirglegof.’ And you can quote me on that," Conque said smiling with his hand on his ribs.
But the victory over McNeese at First Security Field at Estes Stadium, in which the Bears ended the regular season at 7-4 and 4-3 Southland Conference and gained an outside shot at postseason was a wonderful temporary pain-killer.
"It was an ugly sucker," Conque said. "But when you beat the gold standard (McNeese) in our conference, you enjoy it as much as possible."
McNeese (6-5) had won five straight conference games after starting 0-1.
Even though it doesn’t have the required seven NCAA Division I victories for an at-large berth in the FCS playoffs, the Bears have an outside shot of making the postseason field, depending on many variables and results across the country. If 10 teams do not make the seven-game standard to fill the at-large berths, the field will be filled from a pool of teams that fell just short of the standard. UCA is in that pool. The decision of which non-qualifier teams to include will be done today by the NCAA Selection Committee.
"Regardless of whether we make the playoffs, this victory will give us great momentum going into the offseason and will establish comradeship among the younger players," said Opeloye, a senior.
The Bears started drives in the second half of their 1, their 16, their 24, their 15, their 24, their 5 and their 4 and reached their 33 on the greatest thrust — except for one telling drive after they fell behind 24-21 with 7:00 left after McNeese turned a fumbled punt by Isaiah Jackson on the UCA 14 into a touchdown on a pass from Bower to Wes Briscoe.
Nathan Dick then completed seven straight passes, most on the perimeter, as the Bears found a spark for a 66-yard scoring dirve in 3:25. Jackson. who had earlier caught a 69-yard touchdown pass, made the biggest play of the drive when he leaped high on a deep sideline ball, then took the ball out of defender Darrel Jenkins’ hands on the way down for a 38-yard completion to the McNeese 17. Dick passed to Ken Robey for 10-yard touchdown two plays later to put UCA up 28-24 with 3:20 left.
The Cowboys responded by driving to the UCA 24 before Jestin Love intercepted a pass on the UCA 5.
After a 29-yard punt for his 10 and a 17-yard return by Dionta Spencer, McNeese set up on the UCA 27 before the defense made its final stand.
"We couldn’t get field position the third quarter and we kept punting in the shadow of our goal post," Conque said. "The best field position we had was after a kickoff after they took the lead. We kept punting in the shadow of our goal posts. But we we had to have a play and had to have a drive we got it done. We found a way to win against a very good team. And Eddie Carmona was the MVP. He kept turning over the field punting from the shadow of the goal posts."
"I knew I had to get rid of the ball quick," said Carmona, who punted for a 43-yard average with a longest of 65 yards. "The better I could get it off, the better chance our defense had to get the ball to the offense."
Carmona was kicking a lot of extra points early when the Bears built a 21-0 lead in 7:05 of the first quarter on a 6-yard run by Dick that capped a 70-yard, five-play opening drive, the 69-yard pass from Dick to Jackson and a 36-yard scoop-and-score fumble recovery for a touchdown by Markell Carter.
McNeese quickly got back in it during a 4:07 segment in the final minutes of the quarter on a 2-yard run by Champlain Babin and a 12-yard pass from Bower to Damion Dixon.
The Cowboys drew with 21-17 in the third quarter on a 42-yard field goal by Josh Lewis.
"On Senior Day, senior Tok Opeloye breaks up a pass to win the game. On Senior Day, senior Markell Carter gets a scoop-and-score touchdown. On Senior Day, senior Ken Robey scores what proves to be the winning touchdown," Conque said. "Our seniors have given great leadership and I told them before the game, this would be test of character."
Jackson had 115 yards on five receptions. Robey, who did not have a reception going into his senior season, had eight for 103 yards. Robey’s receptions gave him the second most in a season (71) by any UCA player, right behind Aaron Fairooz.
And Carmona, who had four extra points and two punts, left smiling although he was more tense on that final series when his final punt gave McNeese the final opportunity.
"There wasn’t anything I could do on the goal line," he said. "I was just praying."