Arkansas St. making history at New Orleans Bowl
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- Arkansas still has a team it can cheer for in a bowl game.
But that Pig Sooie call? It might have to take a holiday.
This year, Arkansas State is the school playing in December. And while the Indians are a long way from overtaking Arkansas in the state's athletic pecking order, their berth in the New Orleans Bowl is being met with excitement and anticipation.
"The group of guys on this team -- we just want to go out and we always want to prove ourselves," quarterback Nick Noce said. "It's great that we have another chance in December to play on national television."
Arkansas State (6-5) shared the Sun Belt title with Louisiana-Monroe and Louisiana-Lafayette -- and won the tiebreaker to represent the league in the New Orleans Bowl. The Indians will face Southern Mississippi (6-5) in the Dec. 20 game, which was moved to Lafayette, La., because of Hurricane Katrina.
The Indians will always play second fiddle to the cross-state Razorbacks, but they earned some attention Nov. 26 with a dramatic finish to the regular season. Arkansas State won at North Texas 31-24, and clinched a spot in the postseason when Louisiana-Monroe lost the same day.
"We could always handle more publicity, and quite honestly feel we're very deserving of it," athletic director Dean Lee said. "This is a huge accomplishment, and is one that hasn't been easy."
Arkansas State played in Division I-AA between 1982-91, but since returning to I-A, the Jonesboro school has had a winning record only once, in 1995. The Indians' most recent postseason game was in 1987, a loss at Northern Iowa in the I-AA quarterfinals.
Before going to I-AA, Arkansas State's last postseason appearance was a win over Central Missouri State in the 1970 Pecan Bowl.
The road back has been difficult. Coach Steve Roberts went 14-22 his first three seasons with Arkansas State, and this year, an inconsistent offense threatened the Indians' bowl hopes.
But Arkansas State won a pair of October nail-biters to remain in the conference title race. The Indians beat Louisiana-Lafayette 39-36, then edged Florida Atlantic 3-0 in the first NCAA game to go to overtime scoreless. Eric Neihouse kicked the winning field goal both weeks.
"There is not another kicker in the conference that has meant more to their team winning close football games than Eric did for our football team," said Roberts, the Sun Belt coach of the year. "And there is probably not a better kicker when the game is on the line to stick out there than Eric Neihouse."
Arkansas State is led on offense by a pair of seniors. Antonio Warren ran for 1,046 yards and Noce threw for 1,839 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Noce has been with the program through tough times, and he's amazed by the strides the Indians have made.
"I think it's really hitting people in Jonesboro that we're actually champions," Noce said. "And we're going to a bowl game to represent our state -- and our county and our town."
Of course, there's still that question: Just who is Arkansas State representing? The Razorbacks remain a statewide obsession even after going 4-7 this year -- a potential shakeup in Arkansas' coaching staff has overshadowed the Indians' bowl preparations lately.
Larry Lacewell, who coached at Arkansas State from 1979-89, hopes the school will receive more recognition.
"I've often said that we really don't compete with the Razorbacks here," Lacewell said. "But we do deserve the attention of the state occasionally."
The team Arkansas so often forgets is having a season to remember -- and it's not over.
"People actually notice that we're going somewhere, we're playing in December," Noce said. "I think people are starting to recognize us and maybe start respecting us. This is just one step for Arkansas State."
Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press
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