NATCHITOCHES, La. — The University of Central Arkansas Bears sustained another season-ending injury Saturday and along with it, a 31-28 loss to the Northwestern State Demons in Southland Conference play at Turpin Stadium.
The No. 15/18 Bears fell behind 24-17 late in the third quarter, fought back within 24-20, trailed again 31-20 and made it interesting with a late touchdown. But an onside kick attempt failed in the final minute, allowing the Demons (4-5) to break a three-game losing streak and win their first Southland Conference game of the season (1-3).
The loss, which broke a three-game winning streak for the Bears, came at a cost when freshman running back Kelton Warren from Arlington, Texas, severely injured his left leg in the third quarter and left in an ambulance as UCA’s seventh season-ending injury of the season.
"You have to give those guys (Demons) credit," said UCA head coach Clint Conque. "They were the more physical team. And certainly we made an abundance of mistakes. When you go on the road, turnovers, penalties, mistakes, you can’t overcome those generally. And tonight we couldn’t.
"It was a valiant effort there at the end, but you have to play within the system, we have to tackle better, protect the quarterback and make good decisions. And we didn’t do that consistently."
UCA junior quarterback Ryan Howard, the reigning SLC Offensive Player of the Week, completed 26 of 43 passes for 276 yards and one touchdown, but threw an interception in the end zone and lost a fumble at midfield. He was also sacked four times and backup Taylor Reed was sacked a fifth time. UCA outgained NSU 438-333 in total yards but was just 5 of 16 on third down and had 41 yards in losses on the ground.
Junior running back Willie Matthews, the last heathly running back on UCA’s sideline at the conclusion of the game, rushed for a season-high 109 yards on just nine carries and caught five passes for 28 yards. Matthews scored touchdowns on a pair of 11-yard runs, the final one that gave UCA a short-lived 17-14 lead midway through the third quarter.
"I was really proud of him, I thought he competed really, really hard," said Conque. "He had a good attitude and worked hard this week in practice. And certainly he’ll have to carry the load moving forward from here."
The Bears struck first with Eddie Camara’s 35-yard field goal, good for a 3-0 lead with 9:35 left in the first quarter. The Demons came back with an 8-play, 66-yard drive, capped by a 25-yard shovel pass from Zach Adkins to Shakeir Ryan. Chris Moore’s PAT gave the Demons a 7-3 lead at the 6:08 mark of the period.
NSU then pushed its lead to 14-3 with a 33-yard touchdown pass from Adkins to Tuff McClain midway through the second quarter.
UCA’s offense finally began to click behind the running of Matthews, who had consecutive runs of 10, 11 and 15 yards as the Bears drove 86 yards for a touchdown. Matthews did the honors from 11 yards out to total 47 yards of the drive and close the deficit to 14-10 with 5:20 left in the first half.
The Bears finished the half with 163 yards of offense, but allowed 196. UCA was just 1 of 6 on third-down attempts.
UCA quickly flipped the field quickly to start the second half with Jonathan Harrison’s 49-yard punt and NSU’s 24-yarder. The Bears took advantage with a 9-play, 41-yard drive that ended with Matthews’ 11-yard touchdown run that gave UCA a 17-14 lead. But the Demons struck back quickly with a 38-yard touchdown pass from Adkins to Daniel Taylor to re-take the lead at 21-17 at the 8:00 mark of the third period.
Chris Moore added a 41-yard field goal for NSU late in the third quarter for a 24-17 lead. UCA responded with a 25-yard field goal by Camara to close to within 24-20, but Adkins came back with a 6-yard keeper for NSU to take a 31-20 lead.
UCA made a furious rally late, with Howard hitting Courtney Whitehead with a 2-yard touchdown pass in the left corner of the end zone with 1:25 to play, and then throwing to tight end Thomas Hart for the two-point conversion. After an unsportsmanlike penalty on UCA, the Bears’ onside kick attempt was recovered by the Demons and they ran out the clock.
"We just need to get back home and dissect this film," said Conque. "We got away from some fundamentals and some things that put us in this position. When you go on the road and you play poorly, turn the ball over and get out-physicaled… That’s the thing that concerned me. I thought that Northwestern was the most physical team tonight, and that showed up on both the offensive and defensive lines."
Senior linebacker Justin Heard had his third straight double-figure tackle game, finishing with 11 tackles. Senior Matt Hornbuckle had two of UCA’s nine tackles for loss. Whitehead finished with five catches for 75 yards to lead UCA’s receiving corps.
UCA hosts No. 25 Southeastern Louisiana, a surprise 41-7 winner over No. 4/7 McNeese State, at 7 p.m. at First Security Field at Estes Stadium.