Words may never do what happened at Cowboy Stadium Saturday night justice, but they still must be written.
McNeese State suffered one of the most brutal, improbable losses in recent history — if not the program’s entire history — as visiting Central Arkansas scored 10 points in the final 1:10 for a shocking 27-26 win.
“It’s (as stunned as I’ve been after a game) in a long while, for sure,” said McNeese head coach Matt Viator. “Things happened. We had to make a play. They made the plays. Give them credit.”
The Cowboys (4-2, 1-2 Southland) have lost two conference games by a combined two points. Only one team has won a Southland title with two losses.
“We’re about as urgent as you could be,” Viator said.
UCA kicker Eddie Camara provided the last of several sudden blows on a career-long 47-yard field goal with 23 seconds remaining.
“This is a special win,” said UCA coach Clint Conque. “Not many people come to The Hole and come away victorious, and we recognize that and respect that.”
The Bears (5-2, 3-1) celebrated their third consecutive Red Beans and Rice Bowl victory and first win in Cowboy Stadium with a picture at midfield while the Cowboys huddled 15 yards away in stunned silence, with many players fighting back tears and at least one assistant coach doubled over like Bruce Lee had delivered a kick to his gut.
“I can’t even explain it,” said Cowboys cornerback Seth Thomas. “Everybody played hard. It’s just crazy. I couldn’t believe we lost this one.”
McNeese looked well on its way to victory when Marcus Wiltz juked his way past at least five UCA defenders on a 29-yard touchdown run with 3:28 remaining that gave the Cowboys a 26-17 lead.
Instead, it was merely prologue to a nightmare.
Central Arkansas gave itself a last gasp for life when quarterback Wynrick Smothers found a leaping Dezmin Lewis between two Cowboys defenders in the corner of the end zone. The 19-yard connection and ensuing extra point cut McNeese’s lead to two with 1:10 to go.
The throw wasn’t even Smothers’ most important play on the drive — that was his 12-yard scramble on fourth-and-10 from the McNeese 31 that kept the game alive. Smothers finished 26-of-41 with 254 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions.
Even with Smothers’ playmaking, the Bears needed a miracle play from a true freshman walk-on kicker to have a chance.
Jace Denker, who has played in three games this season, delivered a picture-perfect onside kick that took two giant bounces and traveled 28 yards before being gobbled up by Lewis on the sideline.
“We try it once a week in practice. Just once,” Conque said. “It’s never worked.”
The Bears gained 8 yards on three plays to move to the edge of field-goal range before the left-footed Camara booted the longest make of his life.
“After we got (the onside), I knew it was going to come down to me,” Camara said. “I was just trying to get my mind right and hoping for the opportunity, and it came.”
McNeese had the ball last as Darius Carey returned the kickoff to the Cowboys 30 with 23 seconds to go.
Any hopes for a Josh Lewis response were snuffed out with an incompletion and a Cody Stroud sack. A multiple-lateral attempt at a miracle ended up losing massive yardage, setting off a raucous UCA celebration and a zombie-like shuffle for the boys in blue and gold.
“We let one get away, basically,” Stroud said. “We have to stay together. This is two losses and two points. Those will kill you. But we know we can play with anybody. That’s not the question.”