Saturday, the University of Central Arkansas Bears marched onto their striped turf and transformed for a game into the team they had hoped to become in preseason.
For one afternoon, a limping, battered team became whole and packed a wallop. A patchwork bunch became super heroes. A team with little to play for played like they had everything to play for.
The UCA seniors, two of them (Wynrick Smothers and Chase Dixon who could not complete the season because of broken ankles) accepted their plaques and plaudits. Those seniors accounted for 32 victories during their careers.
Then, their teammates took figurative sledgehammers to Sam Houston State, the two-time NCAA FCS runner-up Sam Houston State and the team the Bears shared a Southland Conference championship last season.
For about three hours on a cold, raw afternoon at First Security Field at Estes Stadium, the Bears were white hot in execution.
And in takeways.
The Bears intercepted four passes (two by senior Marcus Peters) and two fumble recoveries, both on punt coverage.
The 49-31 thumping of the Bearkats secured the Bears a winning season overall and in conference (7-5, 4-3). The 4-3 mark tied UCA for third place with Sam Houston (8-4, 4-3) with the Bears getting the head-to-head advantage.
"7 and 5 for a lot of people is a great year, but we had higher expectations," said UCA coach Clint Conque. "But given the circumstances, a good finish. These seniors have averaged eight victories a season over their careers with a championship and two postseason appearances. It was a good way to go out."
With no postseason possibilities, it served as this year’s signature game. The Bearkats, ranked in the top 10 all season but finished with two straight losses, will have to wait for a committee to determine whether they keep playing. Their spirited rally from a 42-10 halftime deficit, sparked by senior quarterback Brian Bell, may help their case.
Bell did not start because of a strained shoulder sustained last week against Southeastern Louisiana. He had limited practice time,
He got into a rhythm the second half and turned a coasting effort for the Bears into a frantic effort to derail a hard-charging train.
The Bearkats responded with plenty of spunk, mounting touchdown drives of 64, 86 and 55 yards, fueled by two onside kick recoveries that turned a Senior Day picnic into a serious fight for scraps.
The Bears shut the door on a comeback after a high punt by Jonathan Harrison, which Torrance Williams signaled for a fair catch, then saw the ball glance off the pads of Sammy Webb IV, who was downfield blocking. The Bears turned the fumble recovery on the 14 into Willie Matthews’ 1-yard run to go upo 49-31 with 5:40 left.
Maybe it was the emotion of Senior Day. Maybe it was just a chance to show a hint of what might have been. Maybe it was some energizing and hard-charging early runs by Matthews. Maybe it was junior Dezmin Lewis, wearing No. 89 in honor of senior Chase Dixon.
Whatever, the Bears had their feet on the accelerator from the start.
A 29-yard pass from Ryan Howard to Dezmin Lewis got the Bears going. Shortly afterward, Desmond Smith recovered a fumbled punt, then caught a 24-yard pass from Howard on the next play to put UCA up 14-0 in less than four minutes of play.
Lewis capped a 75-yard, 10-play drive with a 29-yard touchdown pass from Howard to put the Bears up 21-3 with 3:11 left in the first quarter. Taylor Reed, who left the game in the second quarter with concussion, capped an 88-yard 12-play drive with a 10-yard scoring pass to Matthews.
Then, it got really fun for UCA. Damien Watts got behind the Bearkat defense for a 71-yard scoring play on a pass from Howard. Thirty-eight seconds later, Peters, a senior, took one of his two interceptions 54 yards to the end zone and the Bears, stunningly, had their opponents down, 42-10 with 45 seconds left in the second quarter.
"We were limited in our run packages after Reed got hurt and we kind of got out of sync, but we got aggressive again in the fourth quarter," Conque said.
The Bears had 490 yards of offense. Sam Houston had 488 but only 181 the first half.
Matthews rushed for 89 yards and had another 55 in receptions. Linebacker Justin Heard, another senior, had his fifth straight double-digit tackle game with 13. Harrison punted for an average of 40.7 yards with the longest of 69.
"Under the circumstances, I’ll go home with a smile on my face tonight," said Conque.