At two pivotal junctures Saturday afternoon at Estes Stadium, the University of Central Arkansas Bears (4-1), new members of NCAA Division I-AA, used their speed to quickly change momentum against the Coyotes, sixth-ranked in Division II who suffered their first loss, 24-0, in five games.
After the Bears took the opening kickoff 81 yards in nine plays to a 2-yard touchdown pass from Nathan Brown to tight end Marc Winston, the Coyotes mixed the pass and the running of Stefan Logan beautifully to drive to the UCA five in 12 plays. On first down, USD quarterback Carter Black tried a slant into the end zone. The ball was tipped and glanced off the hands of Desmond Allison. UCA safety LeRoy Hamilton grabbed the ball three yards deep in the end zone and returned in 85 yards to the USD 15. The Coyote defense stiffened and forced an unsuccessful 30-yard field goal attempt, but the field had been turned.
"I thought it was a bad play call," said South Dakota coach Ed Meierkort afterwards. "I thought we had their defense tired and we should have kept running right at them."
With UCA lead 10-0 in the third quarter, Aaron Fairooz, the Bears' standout wide receiver who blocked a punt and a field goal on special teams, broke from the left wing untouched and USD punter Luke Mikkelsen barely had time to grab the snap before the ball glanced away. Fairooz finished the play with a scoop-and-score touchdown from nine yards with 5:14 left in the third.
"That was the backbreaker," Meierkort said. "It was a complete bust of assignments. We have two good guys back there (blocking) and they got confused. He (Fairooz) damn near beat the snap back there."
"It was actually more a tackle and a fumble," Fairooz said. "I don't think he got the ball to the foot. They didn't block me. It was easy to get through."
The Coyotes hurt themselves with three fumbles and two interceptions. They outgained UCA 207-92 the first half, holding the Bears to nine yards rushing on nine carries.
"I thought we physically dominated the first half," Meierkort said. "But they have lots of team speed in which they got to the ball and their hands on the ball. They took advantage of their opportunities."
Another lost opportunity for the Coyotes occurred, when trailing 7-0, they used 12 plays to drive to the UCA 15 in the final moments of the first half. Facing fourth and two, Rico Hatter took the ball on a reverse and found an opening along the sideline. He lost his balance while switching hands and falling out of bounds. The ball glanced away and Josh Fay recovered for the hosts on the UCA three with 15 seconds left.
"I don't think we've had five turnovers all year and we have five today," Meierkort said. "But a lot of that was due to their team speed and their ability to get around the ball."
The Bears scored early in the third quarter on a 44-yard field goal by James Paul and on a 26-yard run by Ross Brown with 7:23 left in the game after a 35-yard pass from Nathan Brown to David Robinson.
"We got big plays for our defense and kicking game and we were opportunistic enough on offense," said UCA coach Clint Conque, whose team was two of 14 on possession downs. "This was a very good football team. Their defense was physical and tough."
The Coyotes limited Ross Brown, the Bears' leading rusher averaging 5.1 yards per carry, to 38 net yards and virtually nothing until the 26-yard TD run. They outgained UCA 310-253 although UCA limited them to four first downs the second half.
Even though Coyote running back Stefan Logan, who was averaging 150 yards per game, was held to 78 and 43 yards in receptions, the UCA players came out with a lot of admiration for the 5-foot-7, 180-pounder who broke several tackles and moved the pile for several hard-earned gains.
"He's a great back," said UCA's Jacob Ford, a senior defensive end. "He's as good a back as we've played since I've been here. He's as fast a back as we've played since I've been here. This was also the biggest offensive line we'll face all year. They were big and they were tough."
"That was a good team, one like some we saw in the Division II playoffs last year," said Hamilton, who had two interceptions. "Just because we made the jump up and are 1-AA, it didn't mean this was going to be easy."
"I think we learned at lot from this game," said Meierkort. "I think we got what we wanted on this road trip."
The temperatures during the game reached 90 degrees with more humidity than the Coyotes are normally accustomed.
"I thought the heat took its toll on them the second half," Conque said. "It seemed like several of their players went drown with cramps."
"I really don't think the heat was a big factor," Meierkort said. "We don't make excuses and that includes the heat. It was hot on both sides."