It’s hard to have optimism amidst all the Ls. But Earnest Collins Jr. hasn’t lost faith.

Since Collins Jr. took over as the head coach at his alma mater last season, the Northern Colorado Bears have won one game in 14 outings. Last season, the Bears went 0-11, including 0-8 in Big Sky Conference play.

When the Bears talk about the rebuilding taking place under Collins Jr. in Year 2, they talk about finishing. It’s something Northern Colorado couldn’t figure out last fall. UNC trailed eventual Big Sky champion Montana State 24-21 midway through the fourth quarter before falling 31-21. The team lost by two points, 27-25, to North Dakota at home. UNC was down 16-14 to Portland State in the fourth quarter before the Vikings pulled out a 23-17 win.

Collins Jr., who played defensive back for the Bears between 1991 and 1994, isn’t one to celebrate morale victories.

“You always build off of things that you did,” Collins Jr. said. “We know that we aren’t extremely far away because of the way we played some schools. But the bottom line is, you can talk about moral victories, but the bottom line is about wins and losses. No one is looking at how close you are. Eventually, it’s coach, you were close, but you can’t get it done. We are focused on turning those close victories into real victories.”

While the Bears come to Bozeman for Saturday’s Big Sky Conference opener against the No. 2 Bobcats with one win — a 40-3 victory over Division II Colorado Mesa two weeks ago — Collins Jr. said he team begins the conference slate with a winner’s mentality.

“We are trying to stay positive and get our kids to understand that we have to change the mindset. You don’t have to be the doormat of the Big Sky,” Collins Jr. said. “We made the jump after the 2002 season to Division I. We have to continue to feed them that they belong here. I think our kids here now understand that, now it’s just a matter of taking care of the little things in order to get ourselves of where we want to be in this conference.”

“We already knew that our kids are in a different mindset this year: we are going to fight, we are going to fight together and we are going to fight until the bitter end.”

Collins Jr. talks of taking the rebuilding process “day by day” and acknowledges you can “be as great a coach as you want to be, but you have to have players to get it done.”

UNC may be losers of 13 out of 14 games under Collins Jr., but the Bears have some pieces in place. Junior middle linebacker Clarence Bumpas, a transfer from Kansas State before last season, ran roughshod on the league, leading the Big Sky with 145 tackles (13.2 per game) and earning first-team all-league recognition in the process. Marcel Gibbons, a junior like Bumpas, moved all over the field in the Bears’ defense and made plays, racking up 12 tackles for loss among his 90 tackles.

“This is a second opportunity for me, a second chance and it’s been a great one so far,” Bumpas said. “I wanted to be a part of helping this program rise back up.”

Bumpas said his team is a long way from reaching its ultimate goal.

“In a percentage from 1 to 100, I’d say we are a solid 85,” Bumpas said. “We are far from where we were. We aren’t where we want to be though. We are building. We have the leadership, we have the skill, we have the talent and we have the drive most importantly.”

Offensively, the Bears sport some stars as well. Jace Davis, a first-team All-Big Sky pick in 2010 before missing last season with academic issues, is back for his senior year. Quarterback Seth Lobato, a 6-foot-5, 221-pound prototype, held his own as a redshirt freshman last season. The former Colorado Buffalo threw for 2,448 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2011.

“The rebuilding, that ‘s one of the main reasons I decided to come here,” Lobato said. “I want to be a part of changing the culture, of getting this program back to its winning ways like it was when we were Division II.”

UNC began the Division I jump, as Collins Jr. alluded to, in 2002, but the Bears have only been a full-fledged D-I school and FCS member since 2007. At the Division II level, UNC was a 1990s football powerhouse, claiming back-to-back national titles in 1995 and 1996.

Rob Ash is 4-1 against Northern Colorado since taking over at Montana State in 2007. But the lone loss doubled as UNC’s first Big Sky win back in 2007. Since then, Ash has seen marked improvement in the Bears.

“Earnest Collins has done a great job; they are stronger, their weight program is starting to make a difference, they have some good recruits, they have some transfers to bolster them in some places they were down,” Ash said. “I see them getting better consistently.”

Since Collins Jr. took over at UNC, Montana State has won 13 of 16 football games. The Bobcats are the No. 2 team in the FCS, are two-time defending Big Sky Conference champions and are averaging 19,267 fans per game this season. Throw in homecoming weekend on the MSU campus and Bobcat Stadium is sure to be rocking, giving the ‘Cats an undeniable home-field advantage.

The underdog Bears can’t wait.

“We are approaching this game like we approach every game: ready to play and expecting the most,” Bumpas said. “Basically, this is a great opportunity for us and we are starting to realize that. What we need to do is capitalize on the opportunities at hand. We will fight together to the end.”

‘Cat Tracks: Northern Colorado defensive lineman Devontae Chappell, an honorable mention all-league pick as a freshman last season, won’t play against MSU do to an injury suffered in UNC’s season-opening 41-0 loss to Utah. Center Jake Solomon is out as well… As Big Sky play begins, the Bobcats currently lead the league in four statistical categories as a team: rushing yards allowed (71.3), first downs (24.3 per game), third-down conversion rate (56.6 percent) and opponent third-down conversion rate (23.3 percent)…MSU junior Cody Kirk and UNC’s Tromaine Dennis are tied for the league lead with four rushing touchdowns each.

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