SAN ANTONIO, Texas – After Nicholls' 44-0 drubbing of Southeastern Louisiana on Thursday night, the University of the Incarnate Word's playoff hopes suddenly hung by a thread. The 6-2 Cardinals had clinched a share of the Southland Conference title just five days prior, but by virtue of Nicholls' win, a discrepancy in scheduling and the head-to-head tiebreaker, the 7-2 Colonels had secured the conference's automatic playoff berth instead. That left UIW waiting on the votes of the FCS playoff selection committee and hoping for the best before Sunday morning's selection show.
"Saturday night I was in a terrible mood," said head coach Eric Morris. "I was anxious and didn't know if we were going to get in. My wife called me and said, 'Hey, you need to calm down. What happens is going to happen.' I wasn't stressed about anything to do with myself or any selfish reasons. Our team is playing some of their best football right now, and I wanted these kids to live to play another day."
"I was laying down watching it, but I was nervous," senior running back Ra'Quanne Dickens said. "I planned on having Thanksgiving with the team. I wasn't planning on going home. I felt like the body of work that we put in all season was deserving of the playoffs."
"I was anxious," explained senior defensive lineman Justin Alexandre. "I didn't know what was going to happen. It could either be really good or really bad. I was just happy the way it turned out."
Even with the team given the day off, a group of players gathered with the coaching staff to watch the selection show live on campus. The wait was tense, but it didn't last long. Five minutes into the broadcast, the Cardinals saw their name and logo flash up on screen. It was a official: UIW had earned their first-ever playoff berth.
"I was fired up, emotional, the whole nine yards," Morris said. "We'd been going back and forth, studying all of the other conferences, the bracketology and all of the experts making their predictions. Some of them had us in, some had us out. To see the players' faces when we got in, and for them to be rewarded after this season like this is really cool. It was pure joy when we found out and then about five minutes of celebrating."
"So much stress left my mind after we saw that," Dickens explained. "I'm just so happy now. We finally have a game, we have somebody to prepare for. I wouldn't say we were practicing for nothing last week, but we just didn't know. So now we've got a focus and someone to prepare for. We're just happy to be playing in November because last year the season was over. We were chillin' this time last year. It doesn't matter where we're playing. We could be playing in Alaska somewhere. It doesn't matter, we're just happy to be playing."
That mentality will serve the Cardinals well. They face 7-4 Montana State in Bozeman, Montana on Saturday, Nov. 24 at 2 p.m. With a new challenge on the schedule, the team didn't take long to turn the page.
"Our coaches are already in the office breaking down film and getting ready for Montana State," Morris explained. "I don't know much about them yet. I know their head coach really well. We coached together at Washington State. He's a really good football coach, and he'll have them prepared. It's supposed to be 32 degrees and snowing, and I think our kids will tell you that we've been going outside no matter what the conditions are all year long. That's to prepare you for situations like this. It'll be a factor, but I think we're mentally tough enough to get over that. I'm really excited to get back out there this week. I think we'll have some really spirited practices."
"I know we're hungry," Dickens said. "Since January, winning the Southland Conference was all we talked about. That was just a step. We want to win the National Championship. I know coach is going to have us prepared. We've just got to be ready. "
"The way that we blew up nationally after taking on the big teams in our conference helped us open up our eyes and realize that we're more than what we think we are," Alexandre explained. "We want to set a standard for everyone else to follow. We just want to keep building and building and building until there's nothing left to build, until there's nothing but success."
With the Cardinals preparing for a long playoff road trip to Big Sky Country, their one-win season in 2017 now feels like a distant memory. But the sudden turnaround and culture change is not lost on Morris.
"I didn't think we could get this far in year one if I'm being honest with you," Morris said. "It's just a testament to our kids and our coaches. They've worked their tails off for this opportunity, and they deserve everything we're getting. I'm excited to get on an airplane on Thanksgiving with our families, and try to go win one on the road."