CONWAY, Arkansas – Big plays were the difference maker in the highly anticipated Southland Conference showdown between McNeese and Central Arkansas.
Unfortunately for the Cowboys, all of those plays were created by the Bears as No. 4 UCA whipped No. 18 McNeese, 47-17, on Saturday night and snapping McNeese's six-game winning streak.
The Bears scored on touchdown passes of 54, 55 and 48 yards as well as scoring on a 28-yard blocked punt return for a touchdown and a 25-yard sack then fumble recovery return for a score. UCA led 30-10 at the half.
The loss dropped the Cowboys to 6-2 overall and 4-2 in conference play while UCA, winners of seven consecutive games, improved to 7-1 on the season while remaining perfect in league play at 6-0.
"There's a reason why they're undefeated in our league," said head coach Lance Guidry. "We knew it was going to be a hard fought battle. We made mistakes in all phases of the game."
McNeese has been riding the stellar play of its defense the last four weeks and coming off an NCAA record-tying performance with four pass interceptions returned for touchdowns against Incarnate Word, but on Saturday, it was UCA's defense that took advantage of McNeese's offensive miscues and scored two non-offensive touchdowns – one on special teams and another on defense.
"We were in that situation last week with our four pick-sixes," said Guidry. "The blocked punt for a touchdown really hurt us bad and the fumble for a touchdown was big too. But that's not why they beat us. We lost because they're a better team and we didn't play our best."
The Cowboys outgained the Bears in total offense 417-323 and nearly doubled up the home team in first downs by a 20-11 margin. But all fingers pointed towards the big plays created by the Bears.
"Things were going good at first," said Guidry. "We got up 10-9, then all sorts of things started to happen. You have to play well in all phases. We couldn't afford to shoot ourselves in the foot, and we did that tonight."
Things didn't start out bleak for McNeese as the Cowboys held a 10-9 lead after one quarter.
The Bears took the first lead on a 34-yard field goal by Matt Cummins to make it 3-0 just 2:26 into the game.
On the ensuing possession, a 42-yard connection from James Tabary to Kent Shelby via an acrobatic grab by Shelby when reaching over the defender, helped set up a 1-yard Justin Pratt run to put the Cowboys up 7-3 with 9:27 to play in the quarter.
After both teams' offenses went three-and-out, the Bears grabbed a 9-7 lead after a Hayden Hildebrand 54-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Cox. The point after was no good.
McNeese went back up 10-9 following a Gunnar Raborn 29-yard field goal with six seconds to play in the first but was held out of the endzone despite having a first-and-goal at the 4-yard line.
The flood gates opened up in the second quarter as the Bears scored on a 5-yard pass by Hildebrand, a 28-yard blocked punt and scoop by Jackie Harvell, and a 55-yard yard pass by Hildebrand to Cox to give UCA a 30-10 halftime lead.
Not much changed in the second half as the Bears scored on a Tabary fumble on a sack by Chris Chambers who then picked up the loose ball amongst a pile of players and rumbled in 28 yards for the score to make it 37-10 with 12:58 to play in the third quarter.
McNeese's offense, which managed just 52 yards since putting up 134 in the first quarter, continued to struggle to move the ball while Hildebrand continued to march his Bears down the field at will, and at the 7:09 mark of the third, he connected with Lester Wells for a 48-yard score, Hildebrand's fourth TD pass of the game, to make it a 44-10 score.
The Cowboys added a touchdown with two minutes to play in the third quarter on a 24-yard touchdown pass from Tabary to Parker Orgeron to cut the margin to 44-17, then UCA got a 28-yard field goal by Cummins to make it a 47-17 game.
David Hamm led all rushers with 110 yards one 16 carries while Pratt added 95 yards on 17 carries with a score.
Tabary finished the game 16 of 35 for 211 yards and a TD while Ross and Shelby each had five catches as Ross led the way with 78 yard receiving and Shelby 73.
Hildebrand completed 12 of 16 passes for 250 yards and four touchdowns.
McNeese will return home next Saturday when it hosts Southeastern Louisiana.
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