Last-gasp, last-play TD lifts Central Arkansas

University of Central Arkansas wide receiver Jarrod Barnes (right) catches the ball on the game’s final play Saturday, giving the Bears a 27-24 victory over Eastern Kentucky at Estes Stadium in Conway. The pass was tipped originally, but fell to Barnes, who scored the game-winning touchdown. (Photo courtesy UCA Athletics)

CONWAY -- When Eastern Kentucky quarterback Parker McKinney's pass found the hands of Ethan Bednarczyk in the end zone, a deafening silence came over Estes Stadium.

That touchdown, which gave Eastern Kentucky a three-point lead with 24 seconds remaining, meant the end of any hope University of Central Arkansas had at winning a United Athletic Conference title -- and potentially the end to its hopes of reaching the FCS postseason.

McKinney drove the Colonels 99 yards in 49 seconds. Dinking and dunking his way down the purple-and-gray striped field, the sixth-year senior dissected a Bears defense that had puzzled him for most of the game.

But the Bears, needing to drive the length of the field with 19 seconds remaining after Christian Richmond's kickoff return, did just that to beat Eastern Kentucky 27-24 on the final play of the game.

"I think the thing that's so special about a game like that is the ability to quit," UCA Coach Nathan Brown said. "You got 18-19 seconds left, no timeouts. You got 88 yards to go. A lot of teams would have just wouldn't put the ball where it needs to be or wouldn't make the play when it mattered most. But these guys just kept fighting.

"I thought this year that we had won every single way you can win a football game. Whether it's comebacks, blowouts, holding onto leads, but that may have topped it all."

On the first play after the kickoff, UCA quarterback Will McElvain hit Trustin Oliver over his right shoulder for a 37-yard completion.

"That was the play that, once he caught that and you had 12-13 seconds left on the clock, you felt like, 'OK, you know, we're at least in a position where we can throw it to the end zone," Brown said.

"You could see our sideline get a little life on that catch."

UCA's next two plays ended in incompletions. Had the second play, a dig route to Jarrod Barnes, been caught, it likely would have ended the game.

With three seconds remaining, three receivers were to the right of McElvain with Barnes to his left at the Eastern Kentucky 46. But a four-man front from Eastern Kentucky (5-5) got pressure to the field side and forced the right-handed McElvain to his left.

"I knew that I was going to have to extend the play with just how long it takes for guys to run 50 yards so I can throw it," McElvain said. "So I just went left and tried to give them a chance to make a play."

McElvain's pass made contact at the 3, careening off the hands of receiver Kam Robinson and into the path of Barnes, who made the catch and dove 2 yards to the end zone for the winning score as time expired.

The catch and touchdown was confirmed after a video review.

Barnes is in his fifth season of college football and fourth season at Conway after leaving the University of Arkansas following injuries that derailed his freshman season.

He's dealt with a long list of injuries in his time at UCA, including turf toe that limited him against Eastern Kentucky.

It remains to be seen whether Saturday night was Barnes' last time suiting up for the Bears (7-3, 4-1 UAC) at Estes Stadium. But if it is, he said he leaves with the memory of a lifetime.

"It feels very good, considering everything I've been through since I've been here," he said. "Ending like that, it means a lot to me. I'm just glad for everybody, all the seniors that we get to leave on a win."

Barnes led UCA with 75 yards on four catches. Christian Richmond had 71 yards on 10 catches. Oliver, who tallied his first three catches of the season, had 45 yards.

Saturday's win puts the Bears in a position they haven't faced since the 2019 season when they last qualified for the FCS playoffs.

UCA, ranked No. 24, will travel to Austin Peay next Saturday for a winner-take-all game for the UAC's automatic bid into the playoffs. The loser will have its fate rest in the hands of the FCS Playoff Committee.

"[That win] makes next week matter more," Brown said. "It's the final week of the season. I feel like both teams have done a lot to get in the playoffs. One of us is going to lose, [but] I think that's two playoff-caliber teams. But the only way to assure yourself and guarantee yourself postseason play is winning next week, and that's why you come to UCA is to play in games like that."