UCA made its season on late game comebacks and heroics.
Being down late is nothing new to the Bears. Coach Clint Conque said as much leading up to this weekend’s Football Championship Subdvision second round playoff game on the road against Georgia Southern.
“This team has shown that it can finish,” he said. “That’s one of the main ingredients of a championship style football team. It’s why we’ve had the success we’ve had this year.”
Saturday afternoon in Statesboro, Ga. was a different story for the Bears (9-3, 6-1 SLC), who saw their season ended and national title hopes dashed in a 24-16 defeat at the hands of the Georgia Southern Eagles (9-3, 6-2 SOCON).
Eagles junior quarterback Jerick McKinnon ran for 316 yards and two scores and threw for another 79 yards and a touchdown, while the Bears offense continued to sputter all afternoon.
“It was a game of missed opportunities,” Conque said to 91.3 FM after the game. “We dropped two touchdown passes, we don’t normally do that. We put the ball on the ground at an inopportune time, the only turnover of the game I believe for us. [We] just didn’t play clean. [It was] a game of missed opportunities.”
UCA had four trips into the red zone, but only one trip resulted in a touchdown. Two trips resulted in field goals by sophomore Eddie Camara.
After giving up 24 points to the Eagles in the first half, the Bears’ defense held Georgia Southern scoreless in the second half, but the Bears’ offense managed only seven points after halftime.
The Bears received the ball at their own 6 with 2:58 remaining in the game, no timeouts and down 24-16. The drive never got off the ground as sophomore receiver Dezmin Lewis ended the drive with a fumble, recovered by the Eagles, after a 10-yard reception.
Georgia Southern took over at the UCA 36, taking three kneels to end the game and move on to the quarterfinals in the FCS playoffs.
The Eagles, their triple-option attack and McKinnon gouged the Bears defense for 483 yards, including 404 on the ground. McKinnon started the ground attack for the Eagles, running 57 yards on a quarterback keeper for the first score of the day, putting Georgia Southern ahead 7-0 with 9:32 remaining in the first quarter.
UCA responded on its next drive, getting into the red zone for the first time. With 1st-&-10 at the Georgia Southern 20, the Bears stalled, gaining only three yards to set up a 34-yard field goal by Camara to make the score 7-3.
Georgia Southern found the end zone again on its next drive, this time on a 32-yard pass from McKinnon to senior receiver Darreion Robinson.
UCA drove the field again on its next drive, this time reaching the Georgia Southern 25 before stalling. Three incompletions later, including one by senior receiver Dominique Croom on a catch made out of bounds in the end zone, Camara kicked a 42-yard field goal to draw the Bears within eight at 14-6 with 1:13 left in the first quarter.
McKinnon found the end zone again on the Eagles’ next drive on a six-yard run to put the Eagles ahead 21-6 at the beginning of the second quarter.
The Bears drove into the red zone once again on the ensuing drive, this time to the Georgia Southern 4. Sophomore tight end Thomas Hart dropped what would have been a touchdown on 3rd-&-goal, leaving Conque and the Bears offense with a decision on fourth down. Conque opted to go for it on fourth down, but was unsuccessful as senior tailback Terence Bobo was stopped two yards short of the end zone.
Georgia Southern added a field goal with 2:31 remaining in the first half to push its lead to 24-6.
Receiving the ball with 44 seconds left in the half, UCA drove to the Georgia Southern 13, but were unable to reach the end zone, settling for another field goal to make the halftime score, 24-9.
The Bears defense, who held the Eagles scoreless in the second half, started the half with an interception to get things going. Senior safety Karl Brady intercepted a McKinnon pass at the UCA 5, returning it 36 yards.
“It was a ‘bend but don’t break,’ but certainly being able to get the turnover there by Brady and shutting them out in the second half, just an outstanding job by [defensive coordinator]Matt Williamson and his staff,” Conque said. “It kept us in the game, but too many dropped balls. Too many touchdown pass dropped balls. Quite frankly, I’m not sure that the best team is walking out of here a loser today.”
Taking over on its own 41, the Bears were able to put together their first touchdown drive of the afternoon. Senior running back Jackie Hinton scored from 19 yards out to bring the Bears within 24-16, with 8:54 left in the third quarter.
UCA had other opportunities throughout the remainder of the second half, but was never able to score again.
Smothers, the Southland Conference Offensive Player of the Year, had one of his roughest outings of the year, completing 16-41 passes for 251 yards, as many deep throws fell a few steps beyond the intended receiver. Smothers failed to throw a touchdown for the first time all season, although he led the team in rushing with 79 yards on 12 carries. Hinton was the leading rusher among tailbacks with 53 yards on eight carries.
Lewis was the Bears’ leading receiver with 90 yards on four catches.
Junior defensive back Jestin Love (14) and senior linebackers Justin Heard (13) and Rojae Jackson (10) all finished with double-digit tackles for the Bears defense.
This marked two consecutive trips to the second round of the FCS playoffs for UCA, whose first year of eligibility in 2010.
“Certainly, I’m really proud of our players and the way they fought today,” Conque said. “It should not diminish what was accomplished this year. A conference championship, advancing to the second round for two consecutive years. We need to get one of these playoff games at home at some point.”
Georgia Southern will advance to play Old Dominion in the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs.
“I thought we battled, but at the end of the day, we just let too many points and too many opportunities get away from us,” Conque said. “You can’t do that against a good football team on the road, the sixth-ranked team in the country. You just can’t do it and we did it. You pay the price for it, you learn from it, but we’ll move forward and grow.
“We say goodbye today to some outstanding seniors, but with that said, extremely disappointed that we didn’t win the football game.”