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UCA struggles, falls in 2nd half

by Adam Cole | October 17, 2021 at 2:17 a.m.

CONWAY -- Kicker Hayden Ray and the University of Central Arkansas' field goal unit took the field with 2:14 left Saturday night at the apex of what was a 180-degree shift for the Bears.

At halftime, UCA headed into the locker room with a 28-10 lead, but as Ray and company trotted onto the field, the Bears had seen its lead dissolve over the past two quarters. Now down three points and with a tie on the line, Ray's leg was the Bears' last hope.

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From 46 yards out, holder Chandler Caughron took the snap and Ray put his foot to it, but as quickly as it went up, it fluttered down about 10 yards away, a result of Eastern Kentucky's Joseph Sayles blocking it and icing the Colonels' 38-35 victory.

"We just let them snowball momentum," UCA Coach Nathan Brown said. "And momentum is such a big deal in football. I think people don't realize how big momentum is in football, but [Eastern Kentucky] got it. They took it and we didn't stop it."

In many senses, the loss was a game UCA (2-4, 1-2 Atlantic Sun) should have won. The Bears outgained the Colonels 481 yards to 346. They held onto the ball longer, and they performed better on third downs, too. Still, Eastern Kentucky (5-1, 2-0) squashed the 18-point halftime deficit, eventually taking its first lead with 7:39 left in the fourth quarter.

While Brown noted that more than one play or moment led to the second-half momentum shift, he did point out an Eastern Kentucky fumble recovery late in the third quarter as one of the more significant plays.

"To lose that fumble hurt," Brown said.

After kicking a field goal and cutting UCA's lead to 35-16 with 3:11 left in the third quarter, the Colonels kicked off to Christian Richmond, who made a sizable return before fumbling, giving the Colonels the ball at the Bears' 15.

Four plays later, Eastern Kentucky was in the end zone. After the two-point conversion, the Bears lead was 35-24.

Two early fourth-quarter touchdowns gave the Colonels their 38-35 lead they held on until the end.

Aside from an inability to score points in the second half, UCA also faced snowballing issues that proved difference-makers.

The Bears finished with 10 penalties that cost them 110 yards, but nine of them were called after the first half.

Brown said the two calls that frustrated him most in the second half were unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, the first of which came in the third quarter and the second which came on a first and 10 on their final drive. The call set the Bears up with first and 21 on their own 43.

"We're a good team at not being penalized and I think that's the frustrating part," Brown said. "When you factor that into the overall outcome of the game ... That definitely hurts us and that's got to be a huge part of why we lost."

The Bears had also burned all of their second-half timeouts just before the 9-minute mark of the fourth quarter, a factor that Brown acknowledged could've changed the game's result.

Despite the loss, there were newfound positives for the Bears. On offense, the ground game took another step forward, setting a season-high in rushing yards with 151. Freshman Darius Hale was also a yard shy of his first 100-yard rushing game, though he continued to find the end zone, scoring three and extending his season total to nine.

Tyler Hudson finished the game with 9 catches for 251 yards and a touchdown. The yardage total set a single-game school record that had stood since 1980, when UCA and National Football Foundation Hall of Famer Ronnie Mallett tallied 242 receiving yards against Ouachita Baptist University.

There wasn't any question, Brown said, that the Bears had some positive takeaways. But, "when it comes to UCA football," he said, "we don't use moral victories."

"I don't care what the statistics say, or show, or what I think or care about," Brown said. "It's about winning the game, and we weren't able to come up with enough plays to win the game tonight, and that's what hurts."

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