SAN ANTONIO, Texas – What a difference a year can make.
After trudging through a tough 1-10 season in 2017, the University of the Incarnate Word football team has found new life under first-year head coach Eric Morris and stunned the Southland Conference by clinching a share of the conference title for the first time in school history. The Cardinals completed their historic run this past Saturday, rallying from an early 14-3 deficit to top Central Arkansas on the road, 40-27.
“I still can't believe it because, every day since January, we've just been talking about that conference championship," said senior running back Ra'Quanne Dickens. "We actually did it. It just brings so much joy to me and all the seniors.”
“Our team knew that we controlled our own destiny to earn a share of the championship," Morris said. "We haven't been great on the road this whole entire year. I'm really proud of the way they came out and prepared the whole entire week. We didn't start very fast in the game, but it was just a resilient group that kept battling together."
Even with so many program firsts and school records already set this season, UIW still has a chance to do even more: secure a first-ever playoff berth. Due to prior scheduling from a couple of years ago, the Cardinals only played eight conference games this season, which means that instead of winning the conference title and its corresponding automatic playoff berth outright, the team will have to wait on the outcome of tonight's matchup between Nicholls State and Southeastern Louisiana. The 6-2 Colonels are the only team left with a chance to supersede the Cardinals in the Southland standings, and if they win, they would earn the conference's automatic berth, relegating UIW's playoff chances to the votes of the playoff committee.
"We don't control your own destiny in this situation, which is a little bit nerve-wracking," Morris explained. "You get more nervous when you don't control something. I still haven't decided if I'm going to watch the game tonight or not. I might drive myself crazy watching it. My wife will definitely leave the house if I am watching it. It's two great teams going at it. Nicholls has had a great year, and they deserve everything they get if they win this ballgame."
Adding to the Cardinals' current uncertainty, should UIW not earn a playoff berth, automatic or otherwise, the team could still potentially travel to Iowa State on Dec. 1. The only catch? If the Cyclones qualify to play in the Big XII Championship Game, that game would then be canceled. So the next three days will likely determine whether the Cardinals are about to start their first-ever playoff run, play one of the top-ranked teams in the nation or end their season without playing another game.
"It kinda sucks because I wish we knew who we were playing," Dickens said. "It just keeps you on the edge, wondering if we're going to have a game or not. I'm just praying and hoping for the best. I hope things go in our favor so we can just be on a plane somewhere, or somebody can come here."
Regardless of what the future holds, Morris has the Cardinals controlling the only thing they can control: themselves.
"All we can do is practice and make the team better," Morris said. "We're fixing some of the mistakes we've had throughout the course of the year. We've done some self-scouting and seen what we need to improve on, so that's what we've been working on this week. We're pretty light in practice. We've cut about an hour off of it each day just so we can get our kids back healthy. We'll know either tonight or Sunday what our fate is, and I gave the kids two different schedules depending on whether we get in the playoffs or not. I'm hoping this group does get to go to the playoffs. They've earned the right to play in the postseason and I'm excited to hopefully get that opportunity."
"I'm just glad the coach is getting our practice in and keeping our hopes high, so we're prepared in case we do have a game," Dickens said. "We'll be ready."