By Chuck Burton
College Sports Journal
PHILADELPHIA, PA — To say that the folks at Tennessee Tech and Central Arkansas are excited about their first-round NCAA Division I Football Championship playoff game this weekend would be an understatement.
For the Bears, it will be the first Division I postseason game ever for Central Arkansas, having only become eligible for the playoffs for the first time last year.
As for the Golden Eagles, their first OVC championship since 1975 has them looking for something else: their first-ever score in a postseason contest.
In three pre-FCS bowl games, Tennessee Tech has been outscored 95-0 — 33-0 by Texas A&M-Commerce in the 1953 Tangerine Bowl, 27-0 by The Citadel in the 1960 Tangerine Bowl, and 35-0 by Louisiana Tech in the 1972 Grantland Rice Bowl.
“There are a lot of schools that have a longer tradition in Division I and more total Division I victories than we do that are not in the field,” Central Arkansas head coach Clint Conque told the Log Cabin Democrat upon their selection. “We need to all appreciate this and what this means to our university, our community and to be able represent our conference, which has been a one-bid league for several years.”
Conque also pointed to one of the Bears’ signature games this year — one which actually ended in a loss.
“We scored the most points (an overtime loss) on Lousiana Tech of any team since they have played us,” Conque said. “We played [undefeated] Sam Houston State as close as anybody in our conference and we scored more points on Arkansas State than anybody has in the Sun Belt. And considering the injuries we had, the toughness of our September schedule and the tightrope we have walked the last two months (the Bears pretty much had to win seven in a row to make the postseason), it’s a honor and a great achievement and a tribute to the resiliency for what these players and assistant coaches have shown to be selected.”
After ending the season with the bye week, Conque is not concerned about the focus coming from their star players, such as quarterback Nathan Dick (2,691 yards passing, 29 TDs) and defensive back Jestin Love (57 tackles, 5 interceptions).
It will be a challenge for the Golden Eagles to lock down Central Arkansas’ two top receivers as well, wideouts Jesse Grandy (683 yards, 7 TDs) and Dominique Croom (501 yards, 7 TDs).
“I told our players you don’t have to be the best team in the country to win the national championship; you just have to be the best team each Saturday,” he said.
As for Tennessee Tech, they’re not just content with being here, either – but their strengths are a powerful balanced attack, led by running back Dontey Gay on the ground (1,009 yards rushing, 15 TDs) and quarterback Tre Lamb through the air (2,051 yards passing, 205 yards rushing, 21 TDs).
More often than not, Lamb would connect with OVC Offensive player of the year, wideout Tim Benford (826 yards, five TDs), who was a cause of a lot of issues for opposing defenses, according to head coach Watson Brown.
“It’s well deserved,” Brown told the Cookeville Herald-Citizen of Bentford’s postseason award. “I thought the great line from one of the coaches on the conference call was ‘He just ate our lunch. He just embarrassed us.’ Another one said, ‘Well, he only caught one pass against us, but he was still the major factor in the game.’ I think that means when you play us offensively, you have to take care of him and that might take care of some other things. I think he, in my honest opinion, is the most valuable player, because of those reasons.”
Yet there’s a lot of excitement – and some apprehension – about the Bear invasion this Saturday.
“They’re so excited about playing and they’ve already been over here and seen their opponent on tape, on their own even. When you get to the last 20 guys who are still alive playing, they’re going to be good. This one is. As soon as we got the tape on, they said, ‘Ooh…’ It got their attention real quick. You’ll see when you get here, this is a very talented team coming in here.
“[Central Arkansas]’ style has been a little bit of our Achilles’ heel,” Brown said. “I don’t know that we got the best draw, technically for us. We’ll see what we can do about it. We played two really good teams in our own league that know what they’re doing and had great players to throw it around to. We’ll see if we can do it any better. We’ve had to do it three times this season. We played the first one pretty good at Eastern Illinois. Then the last two — we gave up quite a few points and yards, so we’ll have to see if we can do it any better.”
The game will be played at 2 p.m. at Tucker Stadium in Cookeville, Tennessee. Tickets are available at the Tennessee Tech Box Office, and will be broadcast over the internet on ESPN3.com. For additional audio, video or live statistics links, click on the FCS ScoreCenter for more information.