By BILL PETERSON
Editor at Large
By the odd revelations of events and the symmetrical logic of football scores, the big picture of this Texas State football season suddenly looks a lot more colorful today, even after a loss, because of what the loss says.
Naturally, the Texas State Bobcats weren’t doing cartwheels over their 31-24 loss to No. 13 Central Arkansas Saturday afternoon at Bobcat Stadium. As Texas State head coach Brad Wright said, “There’s no consolation prize in anything I do for a living.”
With that said, the big picture is not a consolation prize. It’s a gauge of where the Bobcats fit into the Southland Conference race and the NCAA playoff picture. And the big picture says the Bobcats are legitimately in the thick of it. That’s better than consolation. It’s contention. And who would have seen that coming three weeks ago?
With five games remaining in their season, the Bobcats are 4-3 overall and 1-1 in the Southland Conference. However, they’ve already played No. 12 McNeese State and No. Central Arkansas, the two most acclaimed teams in the league and, indeed, the two ranked teams in the league.
And both games were very close. Indeed, the Bobcats won last week’s game at McNeese State, 45-42, before losing by a touchdown Saturday to Central Arkansas. So, the results and the games reveal that Texas State is right there with McNeese State and Central Arkansas.
And because Central Arkansas is in the second year of a four-year transitional process in its move from Division II to Division I, that school is not eligible for the NCAA playoffs. So, if the Bobcats and McNeese State both win out the rest of this year, the Bobcats will go to the playoffs.
Suddenly, the season is a lot more interesting. Next Saturday, the Bobcats go to Stephen F. Austin, which is 2-0 in the league after today’s 50-39 win against Nicholls State. Even if Stephen F. Austin and Central Arkansas wake up Sunday as the only teams in that first place tie, then Stephen F. Austin would be, in effect, alone in first place where the playoff berth is concerned.
A Bobcats win against Stephen F. Austin would put them in that driver’s seat, by virtue of head-to-head wins against SFA and McNeese. Obviously, the season still has a long way to go, but that’s nothing to despair. The prize is out there. If it weren’t, the season would be finished.
“What we have to do as a football team is come back tomorrow and learn from this tape that we shot today,” Wright said. “Let’s go out and keep growing up from this point on. We’ve got a chance to be conference champions if we do that.”
The Bobcats and Central Arkansas played evenly, with UCA barely winning the yardage battle, 394 yards to 376. But two differences proved to be influential. First, the Bobcats made one turnover, and Central Arkansas made none. Second, the Bobcats worked from behind for the entire game, so, even though it was close, they never had access to the options that come with the lead.
First, the turnover. UCA led, 21-17, when the Bobcats took over at their own 20 with 7:59 left in the game. On their second play, running back Karrington Bush fumbled and UCA’s Quad Sanders recovered at the Texas State eight.
The Texas State defense, as usual for the last couple weeks, held reasonably strong in the red zone. But on fourth and goal from the one, UCA quarterback Nathan Brown lobbed a flair pass to fullback Nick Conger for a touchdown, giving the Bears a 28-17 advantage.
Central Arkansas later kicked a 35-yard field goal by Eddie Carmona and Texas State responded with Bradley George’s three-yard touchdown pass to Daren Dillard with 52 seconds left in the game. In the end, UCA’s earlier touchdown off the game’s only turnover kept the Bobcats from at least forcing overtime.
Second, the Bobcats played the whole game from behind, largely because Central Arkansas ran pretty much as it pleased, especially in the first half. Rushing for 231 yards, including 132 by Brent Grimes, Central Arkansas took the lead on the ground, and kept the lead on the ground.
“I think we just had a great mentality today as an offense,” UCA quarterback Nathan Brown said. “Anytime as a quarterback, you want to be the guy throwing the ball. But with the running game we had today, I was over there lobbying to run the ball because we had success.”
On their first possession, the Bears moved 81 yards in 12 plays, scoring on Leonard Ceasar’s five-yard touchdown run. On their second possession, the Bears moved 68 yards in five plays, scoring on a 31-yard touchdown pass from Nathan Brown to Willie Landers. By then, UCA held a 14-0 lead and the Bobcats couldn’t make the plays offensively to catch up.
“We had chances to make the plays, and we didn’t,” Wright said. “If we made a couple plays on defense in the first half and a couple on offense in the second half, we could have won the football game.”
Whenever the Bobcats answered, UCA answered back. The Bobcats went on the board with Stan Zwinggi’s 13-yard touchdown rn in the second quarter to make it 14-7, but Grimes ran a yard for a UCA touchdown with 53 seconds left in the half to make if 21-7.
The Bobcats swung into fast action, burning down field 74 yards in four plays and scoring on an 18-yard pass from George to Cameron Luke that made it 21-14 and beat the halftime clock by 10 seconds. Later, eight seconds into the fourth quarter, Andrew Ireland kicked a 35-yard field goal to bring Texas State within 21-17. But that was as close as the Bobcats could make it.
“We thought we should have beat them today,” George said. “I thought our defense played well enough to win.”
Three weeks ago those would have sounded like rather incredible statements – that the Bobcats should beat Central Arkansas and that the defense would play well enough to make that possible. Today, though, that’s where the Bobcats are. And that doesn’t merely keep hope alive for this season. It creates hope few thought could exist.