Fifth-ranked Arkansas repeated as Heart of America Champions Saturday with a thrilling 25-16 victory over Central Missouri. The Razorbacks owned the scoreline in the first half, but not necessarily possession.
UCM employed a forward-centric attack early and often, rarely going outside the flyhalf. The Warriors game plan resulted in a lot of go-forward ball, but constant pressure from the Razorbacks forced numerous UCM infringements at the breakdown. Arkansas capitalized with two penalty kicks. And when the Razorbacks did have the ball, they often pinned Central Missouri deep in its own territory, forcing the Warrior forwards to go a full field before being rewarded.
"We've been working a lot on our field-position game, especially with the wind," said Arkansas coach Warren Fyfe. "It's such a crucial part of the game. We're able to put teams under pressure. It's really helped us out."
Much of the rest of the opening half remained an even battle with numerous knock ons and turnovers from both sides, but just before the halftime whistle Arkansas managed to score the match's first try when wing Jeremy Marshall-Johnson, a former sprinter on the U of A track team, inserted himself in the backline and raced over 50 meters to pay dirt.
"They came really quick to the ball and it made it hard for our guys to pass it out quickly," said Marshall-Johnson of the UCM defense, "so we run some plays where we get the wings involved and we have them move around and just get more involved with the centers, and that's how we scored the first try."
Marshall-Johnson's try put Arkansas up 13-0 going into intermission, but the Warriors seemed reinvigorrated coming out of the break. UCM continued to run its forwards, but they crashed harder and recycled ball quicker than in the first stanza. UCM's aggression at the breakdowns turned the table on Arkansas, putting the Razorbacks on their hind feet, and it was rewarded with a penalty well inside Arkansas territory.
The Warriors then splayed their forwards horizontally across the pitch, forcing Arkansas to match. Prop Ryan McMonigle took the tap-and-go, soaking up a couple tacklers, and unloaded to No. 8 Clayton Huber who took it the rest of the way for UCM's first try. The conversion was missed, but momentum had swung.
The Warriors secured the kickoff and marched directly back down the field and were again rewarded with a penalty opportunity, this one directly in front of the posts. UCM opted to go for the try, but ala the first half, turned the ball over. UCM regained possession and again had a penalty goal opportunity. This time, the kick was made, bringing the Warriors within an unconverted try of a tie game.
Arkansas reextended its lead by utilizing the territorial advantage, pinning UCM deep in its own territory. The Warriors turned the ball over, but Arkansas was charged with a knock on, giving UCM possession near its five-meter line with a chance to clear the ball to safety. Arkansas stole one against the head and lunged in for an unconverted try.
The Warriors quickly responded with a second try, drawing the game to within a made conversion of being tied at 18, but the subsequent kick sailed errantly, leaving them down two with less than 10 minutes to go. The Warriors had a good opportunity to attack when Arkansas was pinged for offsides near midfield, but UCM's kick went directly out the back of the try zone, giving Arkansas possession again. Marshall-Johnson raced in the game-sealing try with less than two minutes left on the clock.
"I feel pretty fortunate, to be honest, to get out of that one," said Fyfe. "They came after us the second half, gee. I'm surprised we came out of the win after that second-half performance. I feel pretty lucky we came out with the win there. It was a very intense game."
In the end, Arkansas' ability to gain ground and points with its boot one-upped Central Missouri's physicality. Both teams will pack it in for the winter. As HOA champs, Arkansas will most likely see Creighton, tops in the Great Plains, in a spring challenge match to decide who goes to the West playoffs. Central Missouri looks forward to next year.