UCA holds off McNeese 28-24
CONWAY - The University of Central Arkansas Bears closed their Senior Day with a defensive stand in the final seconds, holding off the McNeese State Cowboys 28-24 in the season finale.
Senior linebacker Tok Opeloye knocked away a pass intended for Drew Johnson on fourth and goal from the 4 and UCA ran out the clock to finish the season at 7-4 overall and 4-3 in Southland Conference play. The Bears turned in their fourth winning season in five years at the NCAA Division I FCS level.
The Cowboys, who entered the game in a first-place tie for first and a shot at a conference championship, finished 6-5 and 5-2.
The Bears exploded for 195 yards of offense and 21 consecutive points in the first quarter but then stalled out and did not score until the 3:25 mark of the final quarter. In between, the Cowboys scored 24 straight points and took a 24-21 lead on Jacob Bower's 10-yard touchdown pass to Wes Briscoe with 7:00 remaining.
The Bears, who shot themselves in the foot repeatedly with 14 penalties for 124 yards, put together the game-winning drive, starting at their own 24 with 6:54 left to play. Junior quarterback Nathan Dick completed five consecutive passes, including a 38-yarder to a leaping Isaiah Jackson, to get the Bears down to the McNeese 17.
After a short fun by Jackie Hinton, Dick found senior Ken Robey for five yards. He fumbled at the end of the play but fellow receiver Dominique Croom alertly fell on the ball at the 10. Dick then completed the game-winner to Robey from 10 yards out and Eddie Carmona's PAT made it 28-24.
Bernardo Henry returned Carmona's kick 29 yards to the McNeese 42, and after two imcomplete passes, Bower connected with Briscoe for 21 yards to the UCA 37. He then hit Corday Clark for 10 more to the 27. But on second and 7, UCA redshirt freshman Jestin Love intercepted Bower's pass at the 5, his sixth interception of the season.
UCA went nowhere in three plays and had to give it back to the Cowboys with 1:12 remaining. A 23-yard pass from Bower to Briscoe on first down got McNeese all the way to the UCA 4. Anderson was stopped for no gain by linebacker Frank Newsome and safety Radarius Winson, then Bower threw incomplete on second and third downs.
Bower's pass to Johnston was batted down by Opeloye to end it, setting off a wild celebration along the UCA sideline. With the win, the Bears regained the traveling trophy in the annual "Red Beans and Rice Bowl."
Dick opened the scoring for the Bears with a 6-yard run at the 12:43 mark of the first quarter. Jackson then beat the McNeese defense deep down the right sideline for a 69-yard touchdown pass from Dick and a 14-0 lead with 9:26 left in the period. On the ensuing possession, Calvin Ursin forced a fumble and senior All-American defensive end Markell Carter scooped it up and scored from 36 yards out for a 21-0 lead.
The Cowboys got a 2-yard scoring run by Champlain Babin and a 12-yard TD pass from Bower to Damion Dixon before halftime to cut the deficit to 21-14. Josh Lewis added a 42-yard field goal late in the third quarter to get the Cowboys within 21-17.
Newsome led the defensive charge for UCA with 14 tackles, including two for loss. Desmond Wilcox, Seth Allison, Dominique Brown and Winston had eight tackles each, while Carter had a sack, three tackles for loss and the 36-yard fumble return for a touchdown.
Dick completed 22 of 34 passes for 291 yards and two towochdown with no interceptions. Senior Kenneth Robey finished with eight receptions for 103 yards and a touchdown, giving him the second-best single-season total in school history with 71 catches. Aaron Fairooz holds the school record with 76.
Jackson, a junior receiver/kick returner from Conway, also topped the 100-yard mark in receiving yards with five catches for 115 yards and a touchdown. Senior Eddie Carmona punted six times for a 43-yard average, including a 65 yarder that was downed at the MSU 5. UCA finished with 350 yards of total offense and averaged 6.1 yards per play.