CONWAY -- The Central Arkansas Bears know their current two-game losing streak has not diminished the significance of their next game. With two left to play, their chance for a championship season still exists.
UCA will host the Incarnate Word Cardinals today. UIW (5-4, 5-2 Southland) is in a three-way tie for first place in the Southland Conference standings. UCA (5-4, 4-3) is one game back in a four-way tie for second, so its first opportunity to affect the final results begin with the opening kickoff against UIW, scheduled for 3 p.m. at Estes Stadium.
"Our guys are in good spirits," UCA Coach Nathan Brown said. "We're in a good spot. There are seven teams within one game of each other, and as crazy as this league has been this year, we're still playing for something."
UCA was tied for first in the Southland before it lost consecutive games to McNeese State and Lamar.
Whereas UCA was the undefeated Southland champion last season and has earned two consecutive appearances in the NCAA FCS playoffs, UIW has never won more than six games in a season. Its football program was started in 2009 as an NCAA Division II independent. UCA has played at various levels since 1908 and has won 20 conference championships and three national championships.
UIW finished the 2017 season at 1-10 overall and 1-7 in the Southland. In the offseason, the school fired Coach Larry Kennan and replaced him with Eric Morris, who spent the previous five seasons as offensive coordinator at Texas Tech. He helped lead Tech to No. 1 in total offense among NCAA FBS schools with an average of 566.6 yards a game in 2016. UIW currently leads the Southland in average yards a game at 475.2.
Brown credits Morris for UIW's turnaround.
"Coach Morris has done a great job," Brown said. "They've turned a one-eighty with their culture in one year, because a lot of the players they're playing with are the same players they've played with the last few years. They've won some big games, and they've developed some confidence, and they're good. This game is going to be a challenge."
Morris said his players have helped.
"We've executed at a high level," he said. "I'm proud of the way that they're playing together, playing tough. They're executing."
UIW freshman quarterback Jon Copeland has passed for 2,796 yards and 21 touchdowns. Senior running back Ra'Quanne Dickens has rushed for 841 yards and 11 touchdowns to lead the Southland in both categories.
"Their running back is as good as there is in the league," Brown said. "They get you spread out and then he'll hit you for a big play."
"They're definitely a different team from last year," UCA senior linebacker Reggio Dean said. "They have something to play for. We're expecting them to bring out all they can."
Dean, 5-10, 218, is among players in their final season at UCA who understand this one is likely their last of organized tackle football. He says he can't help but hope for a professional shot but knows his best career opportunities will rely on the UCA undergraduate degree he is scheduled to receive next month. Consequently, Dean, who says he wants to coach, knows his final chance for a football championship as a player comes now.
"God keeps blessing us with opportunities, but this time we have to seize the moment," Dean said. "We can still say we were champions. I can say we were back-to-back champions."
Brown said Dean has brought the sort of leadership UCA needs for opponents like UIW.
"He has turned into our vocal leader," Brown said. "He's our bell cow, especially on defense. He's the guy everyone listens to, and I think he's earned that by how hard he plays and how much he loves football."
Sports on 11/10/2018
Print Headline: UCA championship still a possibility