University of Central Arkansas football coach Clint Conque described Saturday’s victory over Lamar at Beaumont, Texas, the most gratifying of his career.
That 26-24 victory pushjed the Bears to 4-3 on the season, 1-1 in conference.
Nothing big at first glance.
Conque has had teams win trophy games.
He has coached playoff wins.
He has guided teams to upset victories.
He has coached teams that won games for conference championships.
But none apparently has had the degree of difficulty of what happened to a crippled, feisty group of Bears on Saturday night in southeast Texas.
UCA was missing seven starters to various injuries. Three senior starters are out for the season, then tight end Chase Dixon, a former walkon who had become (by work ethic and performance a key player in the programm) sustained a broken leg in the third quarter, At that time, Dixon had scored the Bears’ only touchdown.
Against Lamar, which had the league’s best defense with nine senior starters, backup quarterback Ryan Howard passed to backup receiver Courtney Whitehead for a 24-yard touchdown with 2:53 left that overcame a pass interference penalty at the 3.
Howard made his first start in place of fifth-year senior Wynrick Smothers, who had broken an ankle a week earlier. Whitehead was playing in place of junior go-to receiver Dezmin Lewis, who tried to come off an injury and caught one pass before limping off the field. Because of the matchups offered by the Lamar defense, Whitehead became the go-to receiver.
The Bears appeared to be seriously in trouble before rallying for a 20-17 lead. The Cardinals drove 90 yards to retake the lead at 24-20 with 6:34 left and UCA appeared staggered and prime for defeat. Cardinal fans were sensing the biggest win for the program since it revived football four years ago.
Howard led the 75-yard, 12-play touchdown drive, then the extra-point attempt was partially blocked, leaving the Cards an opening. the Bears stopped then on downs at their 33, three straight times on third and two.
The amazing victory, snatched out of adversity and the jaws of defeated, bonded a team that had every reason to be torn apart.
In what Conque described as an "out of body" type feeling, he experienced a sudden jolt, one of those gut feelings that create a silver lining after Dixon went down.
Dixon’s right leg was placed in an air cast and he was lifted onto a cart to carry him off the field, every UCA player on the sideline, 65 strong, rushed across the field to hug him, pat him on the pads, shake his hand.
"I felt something I couldn’t explain was happening," said Conque as he witnessed the impromptu scene. "I just thought, ‘Wow!’"
He said he felt that electric warm fuzzy once before — in a game in Georgia when UCA lost 12-7 to Valdosta State despite a comeback led by freshman quarterback Nathan Brown, currently the Bears’ quarterback coach who was promoted to starting quarterback the next week.
"I saw on that night, and this one. a group of kids coming together," Conque said."I saw a team that liked each other and were playing for each other. It had nothing to do with football. It had everything to do with human spirit and determination."
It’s too early to tell whether that experience will be a game-changer on the way to great heights for this battered group of Bears, who have collected received injuries and ailments to almost every body part this season.
But somehow they are still alive in the Southland Conference race. Given the constantly rising incline this season, that says a lot.
(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 501-505-1235 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @dmaclcd).