In the aftermatch of his team’s 66-31 victory over Stephen F. Austin, University of Central Arkansas football coach Clint Conque talked about corrective vision during Monday’s weekly Bearbacker luncheon.
The Bears, who are trying to redefine themselves at midseason, began the year with a Top-10 ranking and high expectations, both in the Southland Conference and nationally. Then, the team was shaken with close losses to Colorado and UT Martin. They were further shaken by a rash of injuries that sidelined for the season senior starters Dominque Brown and Karl Brady.
Then, they got hammered in a home loss to McNeese State. Against Nebraska-Kearney, they lost for the season the player Conque had called the "face of the program" in quarterback Wynrick Smothers, the SLC Offensive Player of the Year last season. Wide receiver Dezmin Lewis was also out indefinitely with a leg injury.
UCA began a stretch of games against Lamar and Stephen F. Austin 3-3 and 0-1 in the conference.
"Many people thought we were dead in the water in the conference race," Conque said. "I told the team that we had reached a fork in the road and I didn’t know which one we would take for the season. We’re talking about moving forward and we had lost two close games, got pounded by McNeese State. They (the team) are seeing all the injured players, including probably our two best leaders in Smothers and Lewis. I challenged them to follow us through the wilderness with no guarantees either way on which fork we took.
"We had to go to a different operation as far as motivation. It got really personal for a couple of weeks as we had to push them, get in their face and challenge their manhood."
The Bears enter this week’s game against Northwestern State with a three-game winning streak at 5-3 and 2-1 in conference play with a shot at grabbing a share of the SLC title and their postseason hopes alive. UCA still has games left against two of the four teams (including UCA) that realistically have a shot at the conference title.
"We can’t do anything about McNeese State, but we have Southeastern Louisiana and Sam Houston State down the line as well as an improved Northwestern State team," Conque said. "The big thing is our players can now see. They can see our dreams and goals for this season are still there and we are very relevant in the conference going into November.
"They can see the end result of what might be out there if we continue to play on and win and I’m not sure they could see that three or four weeks ago. They saw all the injuries and close losses and probably just looked at the ceiling and rolled their eyes. We don’t have to challenge their manhood anymore for motivation. They can see the end game. We can concentrate more on the details, more on the X’s and O’s and how to whip a double team."
Even with the 681-yard effort and dominating victory over SFA in which he saw several veteran players and newcomers elevating their game, Conque said he saw some rough edges.
He said the punting game has taken a step back and he was disappointed with a couple of lack-of-disciplined penalties.
"We need to play with an edge and I’m OK with that as long it is channeled in the right way between the whistles," he said. "It’s easy to overlook a bad punt or coverage or a personal-foul penalty when you are winning by four or five touchdowns.
"But we know we are probably going to be in more games like Lamar (a 26-24 victory) than SFA. In those types of games, those little things become more magnified and can be the difference between winning and losing."