By DAVID McCollum
Log Cabin Staff Writer
JONESBORO -- A one-man cavalry in the form of receiver Lennie Johnson saved the Indians Saturday night.
The University of Central Arkansas Bears were seconds away from an ambush that would have caused a major quake on the Arkansas sports scene. The Bears of NCAA Division II had the Indians of NCAA Division I-A down 35-30 with 53 seconds left.
The Indians took over at their 20 with no timeouts left. UCA fans were near delirium. ASU partisans were in shock.
In two plays, the Indians' Lennie Johnson reversed the emotions. With an Indian Stadium record crowd of 29,465 standing, screaming and lining every cranny of the fence circling the stadium, ASU produced a 36-35 victory on two absolutely magic plays.
First, ASU quarterback Jeremie Watkins passed to Johnson on a simple out pattern along the sideline. It was the play that really did the Bears in.
Derrick Flowers gambled, overran the ball slightly and missed the tackle. Johnson turned it into a 50-yard ramble to the UCA 11.
"We had a guy miss a tackle, I know that," UCA coach Mike Isom said. "We were in a semi-prevent defense. We were dropping a lot of people back. The guy (Johnson) made a great play. After we missed him, instead of going out of bounds, he took it for what he could get."
It was first down on the 11 with 36 seconds left.
Watkins threw to the left corner of the end zone. The Bears' Damien Land had the play covered well but Watkins made the perfect throw, and Johnson stretched to the limit of his 5-foot-8, 175-pound frame. He caught the ball over his shoulder and twisted sideways as he fell in the corner of the end zone for the touchdown that sent the scrappy Bears through the trap door.
"Just a great play," Isom said. "That hurt because we had the game in our grasp and let it get away. If we had been dominated, it would have been different.
"But we'll learn from this. We'll learn the game is not over until there is 0 seconds on the clock."
If this were a game between ranked Division I-A rivals, television commentators would be screaming and using phrases like classic and golden and phenomenal.
For drama, special effects and just plain weirdness, it may have been one of the greatest football games ever played in the state.
Johnson's final heroics put a shadow on an electrifying performance by Bear wide receiver EnRico Grayer, a gift to UCA from Sonoma State of California, which dropped its football program. Grayer, projected from the beginning as a pro prospect, caught three touchdown passes, had 118 yards in receptions and gave the ASU secondary a good case of the shakes.
How big of problem was Grayer? When ASU's Rodney Allen finally stepped in front of him on a sideline rout for an interception, he cradled the game ball and took in to the bench like a crown jewel.
The Bears used several offensive tricks so as to keep Grayer open. First, quarterback Chris Freeman used two- and three-step drops to neutralize the rush. Then, the Bears flanked three receivers to the opposite side from Grayer, so it would be hard to double-cover him. Freeman kept the defense honest by hitting some short routes.
The Bears also kept the ASU defense on its heels by using some glancing, slashing runs by Andre King and Eugene Meabon.
"We moved the football and scored points against a pretty good defense, an athletic defense," Isom said. "Our offense played well the whole game."
Meabon, a senior running back from less than an hour's drive away at Wynne, sent the Indians reeling when he burst off tackle for a 41-yard touchdown run that gave the Bears a 35-30 lead with 4:30 left.
An interception by Michael Murry and a punt to the 20 by Scott Stephens appeared to put the Indians into a box canyon with 53 seconds left.
But the game was worthy of such last-second dramatics.
It was the second straight year that the rivalry, played for only the second time in 50 years, drew a record crowd for ASU.
Among other things, the enthusiastic throng saw: a 76-yard punt by UCA's Scott Stephens; the Bears going for it on fourth and 1 at their 32; 42 points scored in the first half, double-offsetting penalties on a kickoff; an assortment of personal foul penalties befitting of a rivalry starting to boil.
Just as last year, the score was tied at halftime.
There were 42 more points scored, 21-21 compared with 0-0 a year ago.
Obviously, neither defense had all the keys to the other's offense and it provided for a delightfully entertaining first 30 minutes.
The Indians could not handle Grayer, who scored two touchdowns and set up the other. The Bears had trouble at the line of scrimmage with a well-mixed ASU offense.
It accounted for a combined 466 yards in offense.
UCA began its first major offensive thrust after the Indians' first drive. Watkins underthrew a deep pass and the Bears' Danny Johnson, although beaten deep, adjusted to the short pass and intercepted at the UCA 9.
Two running plays netted nothing, then Andre King slipped outside when a hole closed and darted 21 yards on third and 10. King appeared stopped by three men in the middle on the next play, kept cranking and got outside again and rambled 54 yards before he tired and was pulled down from behind.
On second and 5 from the ASU 11, Freeman lobbed a pass into the end zone and Grayer went up and grabbed it for the touchdown. Mike Mayeux's extra point made it 7-0 UCA with 5:50 left in the f first quarter.
The Indians controlled the line of scrimmage on a 68-yard drive in nine plays for the equalizer. ASU blocked the left side of UCA's defense well and Aalstair Couch was untouched on an 11-yard trip into the end zone. It was 7-7 with 1:38 left in the quarter.
The Bears responded with a 77-yard, eight-play drive that featured Grayer and a gamble.
UCA faced fourth and less than a yard on its 32. Isom sent in his short-yardage backfield and went for it. Chad Moran scampered for 11 on a bootleg around right end.
Defensive holding and personal foul penalties against ASU set the Bears up at the Indian 18. Freeman threw high toward the pylon and Grayer beat the coverage again, taking the ball over his shoulder for a touchdown. The Bears led 14-8 with 13:55 left in the second quarter.
The Indians came back with a 72-yard, 11-play drive. Couch was the primary runner in getting the ball to the UCA 34. Then, ASU inserted Zachery, who added a new level of speed.
He carried the ball four straight times and covered the 34 yards. He outran the UCA coverage on a 1-yard sweep to help tie the game at 14 with 9:19 left in the quarter.
After holding UCA, the Indians added an aerial element in driving 62 yards in seven plays. Watkins hit Lennie Johnson for 20 yards, then Zachery for 25. He then passed to Ron Treat, his tight end, for 12 to the UCA 12.
Zachery got 10 on a sweep, then scored on another sweep. ASU led 21-14 with 5:09 left in the half.
The Bears responded with Grayer. He got a couple of steps on the ASU defense again on a post rout and combined with Freeman for a 66-yard play to the ASU 6. Kelly Lovell got 5 yards on first down, then ASU was offside in stopping another thrust by Lovell. It took the Bears two quarterback sneaks by Freeman to get the ball about a foot into the end zone. With 2:45 left in the half, the score was tied at 21.
On its first possession of the second half, ASU drove from its 21 to a 32-yard field goal by Jeff Sowell to go up 24-21 with 10:50 left.
ASU almost turned the game around when Clarence Williams crunched Freeman and recovered a fumble on the UCA 23. Two sacks by safety Tavares Wynn took the Indians out of field goal range.
ASU went up 30-21 when Couch scored on an 11-yard run with 4:43 left. After a 41-yard kickoff return by Shadrick McAfee, the Bears drove 60 yards to make the game tight. Freeman lobbed a fade pass to Grayer for the touchdown that drew UCA within 30-28 with 58 seconds left in the third quarter.
Next week, the Bears open conference play against Southern Arkansas, which stunned perennial Gulf South power North Alabama on Saturday night.