University of Central Arkansas coach Clint Conque has the Red Beans and Rice Bowl trophy, emblematic of a victory over McNeese State, in his office.
That’s the tangible.
Intangibly, the Bears’ 21-18 win over the Cowboys was also a trophy win.
UCA has now won three out of the last four meetings with McNeese, which has won 14 Southland Conference championships.
After Saturday’s victory, UCA presented the game ball to assistant coach Slade Nagle, who was a former quarterback at McNeese.
"Two of my assistants, Slade and Matt Kubik, have been coaching in this conference several years at several different schools (Northwestern State, Sam Houston State, Texas State) and this is the first time either has been on the winning sideline against McNeese State," Conque said. "To beat the banner program in our conference is an affirmation of what we’re trying to do. Sam Houston has a real good team this year. Stephen F. Austin has had some good teams lately and we’ve had some, but McNeese State seems to be the program you have to go through to get the conference championship."
The Bears and the Cowboys have played five times since UCA has been a Southland Conference member and UCA holds a 3-2 edge.
The last three years, McNeese has won 21-17, then UCA has won 28-24, and 21-18.
"You can see that as we have become a little closer together, the games have become more of a defensive struggle," Conque said Monday at the weekly Bearbackers luncheon. "Each game has become physical and violent with some strange plays."
Because of Saturday’s game at First Security Field at Estes Stadium become a defensive struggle, Conque said he intentionally went conservative on offense.
"We led 21-7 at the half, and they (the Cowboys) took the kickoff and held the ball eight minutes and kicked a field goal," he said. "As a coach, you’re thinking you just took their best shot and you look up and you’re still up by two scores. We go into the fourth quarter and we’re still up by two scores.
"I did not want to put our defense in a bad position with a short field; I didn’t want to do anything crazy. Their man coverage was getting closer and closer and it was tempting to take a two-step drop and try to go deep."
The Bears scored on three big plays, an 81-yard pass from Nathan Dick to Dominique Croom, a 98-yard fumble return by linebacker Frank Newsome and a 25-yard fourth-down pass from Dick to Brett Soft.
"Our players made plays when they had to in all three phases," said Conque, noting punter Kevin Buford had three "huge" punts in the second half.
Conque said the Bears’ defense, particularly against the run, has improved because they are healthier up front and in the middle with the return of lineman Justin Williams and a healthier Newsome, who injured an ankle Saturday but should be OK for Lamar.
"The better we are up front, the better than helps our linebackers," he said. "We have to be healthy in the core to play quality defense."
He said cornerback Dominique Brown could return to action this week and there is a possibility the Bears could get offensive lineman Joe Lehocky and linebacker Jacob Bundrick back. Running back Jackie Hinton turned his right ankle against McNeese and his playing status will be determined later in the week.
The Bears (4-3, 3-1) have their first meeting with Lamar University on Saturday in Beaumont, Texas. Lamar is in its second full year of football after dropping the sport in 1990.
"It’s a different situation because there has been no history, no association with them, but it’s new territory for both of us," Conque said. "But it’s good to still be in the conversation in the conference race in week 8 because after week three, there wasn’t a whole lot of conversation about us in the conference."