After a break for the Thanksgiving holiday, the University of Central Arkansas football players returned to campus Sunday with the tiger-like eyes that are appropriate for Bears.
The Bears (9-2) begin play in the NCAA FCS playoffs Saturday afternoon for a second-round game against Georgia Southern, the fifth seed, at Statesboro, Ga.
"The players had that keen look in their eyes and I like that," UCA coach Clint Conque said at Monday’s weekly Bearbacker luncheon. "Not many national pundits are giving us much of a shot in this game. But this team has something about them and that’s very important going into a hostile environment. We need to hang on early.
"This team has shown resiliency and if we get to the fourth quarter, we have found a way to finish. That’s what championship teams do."
The Bears will practice through Thursday this week with generally hard workouts. UCA played 11 straight games before its open week on the Southland Conference schedule and the bye week for the playoffs.
"In the last month, we have been off more days than we have practiced with the open week and the bye week," Conque said. "To build continuity and game consistency, we’ve got to have reps to get our aggressivness back after the break."
Conque said the Bears will need to be both aggressive and focused against Georgia Southern’s option offense in a matchup of two of the nation’s best offenses with different styles. The Bears have three receivers with 50 or more receptions. Georgia Southern’s leading receiver has eight receptions.
Conque said the closest comparison to any team the Bears have played is Sam Houston State, the co-champion of the Southland Conference whom they defeated in the conference opener.
"You have to play sound, assignment football against that style of offense," said Conque. "You have to tackle the fullback, have to hit the quarterback and you have to have someone assigned to the pitch man every single play. And if you don’t tackle, there is no support."
He said the Eagles are also solid on defense.
"You don’t win the Southern Conference without being good in all three phases," he said.
Conque said the Bears have no major injuries.
It’s also the first game UCA has played on natural grass since the season finale at Estes Stadium against McNeese State in 2010.
The winner of the UCA-Georgia Southern game will play the winner between Old Dominion and Coastal Carolina in the quarterfinals. If UCA wins and Old Dominion wins, the Bears will head to Virginia because Old Dominion is the No. 4 national seed. If UCA and Coastal Carolina win, the host team will be determined by a bid. If Old Dominion and Georgia Southern win, the quarterfinal game will be a the stadium of the highest national seed, which is Old Dominion.