<
>

Cent. Arkansas 47, McNeese St. 30

CONWAY, Ark. -- Central Arkansas played like a championship team and acted like one afterward, celebrating wildly while fans spilled onto the field.

The Bears finished the regular season with the best record in the Southland Conference, but this is only their third season in Division I, so the league won't recognize them as champions.

That hardly seemed to matter after they beat McNeese State 47-30 on Saturday night.

"I don't think anything can be diminished by anything that's said or written," Bears coach Clint Conque said. "These guys know in their hearts that they're champions, because they proved it on the field."

Central Arkansas (10-2, 6-1) finished one game ahead of Texas State, which will receive the Southland's automatic bid to the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.

The Bears can't be eligible for the postseason until 2010.

Perhaps best known as basketball star Scottie Pippen's school, Central Arkansas is building an impressive football program. The Bears moved up from Division II after the 2005 season and have had a winning record every year since. Quarterback Nathan Brown, who finished his college career Saturday, threw for over 10,000 yards and exactly 100 touchdowns at Central Arkansas.

Brown threw for two touchdowns and ran for two against McNeese State (7-4, 4-3). He went 19-of-29 for 253 yards with an interception.

"He played like an NFL prospect, and he's going to be sorely missed," Conque said. "He left his footprint -- no question -- on this community and this program."

Central Arkansas led 20-14 at halftime and caught a break early in the third quarter. McNeese State's Steven Whitehead caught a pass over the middle, bounced off a couple tacklers and ran toward the end zone. Just before he reached the goal line -- after a 57-yard gain -- he was hit and fumbled, and the Bears recovered in the end zone.

Central Arkansas then took a 27-14 lead on Brown's 35-yard run up the middle.

Brown threw his 100th touchdown pass later in the third quarter, and Brent Grimes added a 10-yard TD run with 1:55 left in the period to make it 40-21.

After the game, the Bears gathered at midfield while "We are the Champions" blared through the stadium. It was hard to argue with that sentiment.

"UCA has less losses than everyone else," McNeese State coach Matt Viator said.

For Central Arkansas, the victory came during a difficult year for the school. Last month, two students were killed in a shooting on campus.

This was a night for celebration, though. Afterward, wide receiver Eric Ware wore a championship T-shirt.

"Everyone knows who the real champion is," Ware said. "It might have an asterisk by it, but hey -- we're the champs."