Indians make the plays when it counted

By David Shaw, The Salisbury Post

Clearly, the new blood was out for blood Saturday afternoon.

They marched into Shuford Stadium — this confident, headstrong Central Arkansas football team with its 100-proof offense. They were certain, positive actually, that Catawba’s take-no-prisoners defense could be carefully dissected, much like a doomed frog in a science experiment.“Our plan,” said beefy quarterback Brian Stallworth, “was to take them apart. There was no way we were gonna lose this game. Not with our passing game.”

Indeed, UCA entered the Division II postseason opener ranked first in the land in passing offense (374 yards-per-game). Drop that in the blender with a better-than-average defense and you’ve concocted the nation’s 14th-ranked team.

So how come the visiting Bears, who dominated the stats but not the scoreboard, went bottoms up against Catawba?

“Because they made the plays and we didn’t,” grumbled massive left tackle Patrick Smith, a transfer from Southern Cal. “If we do what we’re capable of doing, no one can stop us. And I mean no one. But there’s really no use even saying that right now.”

There isn’t. Not after Catawba put the brakes on UCA’s 9-3 season with a draining 35-34 triumph. Not after the Indians played smarter than the average Bear, shackling UCA’s running backs and forcing the guests into late-game passing situations. And certainly not after squandering that 11-point halftime lead, a two-quarter interval spent slapping Catawba’s third-ranked defense absolutely silly.

“For a while it looked pretty good for us,” said 280-pound center Chris McClenny. “We showed that our offense wasn’t a joke. But after the first half they had seen what we could do. They got a handle on us. They no longer had to adjust to the speed of the game.”

On this sun-drenched November afternoon, speed killed. UCA’s offense downshifted from a 4-on-the-floor joyride in the first half to a stalled-in-traffic, get-me-some aspirin headache down the stretch.

“We lost our rhythm,” wideout Michael Norvell said after making 10 catches for 120 yards. “All of a sudden we were unable to make the plays we needed to make.”

There were other failures. The game’s most significant play came early in the fourth period, shortly after Justin Smith’s 32-yard field goal gave the Bears a precarious 34-28 lead.

“Even then, it was shaky,” said linebacker Fa’Quan Harris. “You knew something was coming. We had a little momentum, but not a lot. The way this game was going, we knew they weren’t through. We knew they were gonna try to pound it down our throats.”

Sounds like Harris was on to something. Catawba proved him right on the ensuing kickoff, returned 51 yards by Nick Means to the UCA 39-yard line.

“We had a breakdown in our coverage on that play,” was all losing coach Cliff Conque would reveal. “I’m sure there was a missed tackle in there.”

Swing the camera back on Harris, a special teams specialist, for more details.

“I saw the guy coming and forced him inside because I thought I had inside help,” he explained. “What I didn’t know is that he had slipped. When (Means) cut it back to the outside, I knew we’d tackle him. He wasn’t going all the way. It just took us 20 or 30 yards to get him down.”

Four plays and a face-mask penalty later, Catawba had its one-point lead. And for most of the Bears, a game that was unfolding according to script had transformed into an itchy wool sweater that no one felt comfortable in.

“We had every opportunity to make big plays,” said Smith. “We just didn’t. We put up all these big numbers all year long, but in the second half when we really needed them, we didn’t. That’s what’s disappointing.”

Ten minutes later, Central Arkansas’ fate was sealed with a miss. Only 1:41 remained when Stallworth’s fourth-and-20 pass from his own 36 — a fastball intended for Draylon Galloway near the left sideline — was knocked away by Catawba ballhawk Nick Hopper.

“I guess we could have punted and played defense,” Conque told a roomful of post-game reporters. “But I wanted to put the ball in Brian’s hands for one more shot and go down swinging.”

Hmmm. A final opportunity, swung on and missed.

“It’s hard to make that play work when they’re dropping eight (defenders),” said Stallworth. “They had already covered the back side and there wasn’t much time to work with. In the end I decided to throw it into coverage rather than take a sack.”

As the ball fluttered to the ground, so did UCA’s miraculous, turnaround season and its bid to win a D2 playoff game for the first time. So while the Bears went down Saturday afternoon, let the record show they went down standing up.

“Yeah, we tried,” said Stallworth. “Everyone thought we’d win this game. For it to turn out like this, that’s just not right.”


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