The last play was a microcosm of the game — a jump ball that decided a football game.
Three seconds left. Everyone standing at Estes Stadium. Many fans moving to the outside front row of their skyboxes.
With the ball on the University of Central Arkansas 24, Sam Houston State quarterback Brian Bell arcs a pass into the end zone for his 6-foot-2 receiver, Trey Diller, who was surrounded by four UCA players in an umbrella defense.
Ball is tipped in the air, resulting in a mad scramble. For what seemed like minutes, the game rests in some kind of surreal, suspended animation as six players fall into a pile in the corner of the end zone.
Then, a diver coming to the surface out of the ocean of uncertainty, the Bears’ Karl Brady emerges with the intercepted ball over his head, igniting joy on The Stripes.
In their Southland Conference opener before 10,157 spectators and a regional television audience, the Bears pulled off one of the greatest comebacks in their history — defeating the Bearkats, last year’s SLC champion and national runner-up, 24-20. To do it, they had to rally from 10 down with no timeouts and 5:25 left.
"Elated, seemed like 10 seconds," UCA coach Clint Conque said about his emotion on the final tipped ball.
"C’mon defense; I felt I shouted that 60 times in the last 30 seconds," said UCA quarterback Wynrick Smothers, who guided the Bears on two touchdown drives when his team was staggering against the ropes, then had to watch from the sidelines as the UCA defense held up against a furious Sam Houston drive in the last 1:17. "I went up to Jestin Love, who has a knack for making big interceptions and said, ‘Go, do what you do.’ I was watching the ref on the last play. My heart jumped. When we came up with the ball and the ref waved his arm, I said, ‘whew, it’s over.’"
The Bears had just defeated the No. 3 team in the country, 14-1 last season, in a fashion that was Emmy-worthy as far as a football reality show, with an assortment of twists and turns, some subtle, some glaring.
"Wow. That’s one of the best games I’ve ever been involved in," said UCA coach Clint Conque. "I was at Louisiana Tech when we beat Alabama at Tuscaloosa in 1999, but I don’t think I’ve coached in a bigger game. I’m not sure this was not a better game than that one.
"Three down. No timeouts? But we kept believing. I’m not sure there’s not something to those stripes (on the field) and black pants (which the Bears broke out as a surprise after wearing gray pants in warmups). I’m a Louisiana guy. I’m not sure there is not something to that voodoo stuff."
But it was the magic of UCA’s quarterback and senior wide receiver Dominique Croom, who wrapped some big plays around some smaller ones to spark the Bears to victory after the Bearkats (2-2, 1-1) seemed to have the UCA defense against the ropes after using power and an well-crafted option attack to drive 80 yards in 12 plays and 66 in 11 plays to a 20-10 lead with 6:03 left.
"I told our coaches at halftime that No. 4 (Smothers) is gonna win it for us with his feet and we’re gonna go to No. 84 (Croom) because he’s done it for us in the past and he can do it again."
Trailing 20-10, Smothers first went to work with his other weapons, completing passes to Jesse Grandy, Dezmin Lewis, Jackie Hinton and Terence Bobo on 66-yard, 12-play drive that just took 2:06. Smothers weaved his way through the Bearkat defense for a 17-yard scramble for a touchdown that he punctuated with a dive into the end zone. Eddie Carmara’s extra point drew the Bears with 20-17 with 3:18 left.
"I knew we had to score quick," said Smothers. "When I was running, I was thinking to myself that ‘I have to score,’ ‘I have to score.’ Then, I knew our defense had to get a stop."
UCA burned its final timeouts on the series and Justin Heard and Jeremy Jester forced lost-yardage plays that gave the Bearkats a three-and-out and UCA took over at its 28 with 2:11 left.
After overcoming a false start penalty and a fumbled snap that Smothers turned into an 8-yard shovel pass to Terence Bobo, the UCA quarterback connected for 41 yards on a deep sideline pass in which his receiver made an over-the-shoulder catch.
"I’ve been throwing just ahead of the receivers all game on deep throws," said Smothers. "We knew it was gonna be tough against their man defense. Dominique came up to me and told me that it’s just gonna take one."
"When my number was called, I knew I had to go up and get it," said Croom, the Bears’ most experienced receiver. "Wynrick hit me in perfect stride. Just took one."
Maybe two or three.
Another pass to Croom put the ball on the SHSU 26 with 1;03 Then Smothers located Croom deep in the left corner of the end zone. Croom adjusted to the ball while the Bearkats’ Robert Shaw got twisted the wrong way, resulting in the touchdown that gave the Bears the 24-20 lead with 57 seconds left.
"Now, it was the defense’s turn," said Smothers.
Nicely executing the Bearkats’ hurry-up offense, Bell completed four straight passes to Diller before the final jump-ball scramble.
"We knew it would be hit-and-miss against their defense all day," said Conque. "We made plays in all three phases. We were a little better in all three phases. We showed resiliency against a tough, physical football team."
The Bears found themselves behind 10-0 in the first quarter as the Bearkats executed their offense nicely with Bell and backs Richard Sincere and Tim Flanders to drive 48 yards to a 35-yard field goal by Miguel Antonio and 72 yards on a 39-yard run by Flanders.
The Bears drew within 10-7 in the second quarter after Antonio was wide left on a 25-yard field goal attempt. Then, Bobo slipped behind the defense and SHSU defender Darius Taylor took a pump fake then lost his balance for a cheapie 39-yard touchdown.
Smothers and Hinton got some key rushing yardage as the Bears used a 15-yard punt return by Jesse Grandy to drive 49 yards in 14 plays to Carmara’s 22-yard field goal.
Sam Houston responded by pounding the UCA defense with a steady dose of option football to take the 20-10 lead that led to the furious and dramatic finish.
"A September matchup of heavyweights," Conque said. "There were times we were both taking standing eight counts."