Natchez Democrat/Lauren Wood
Alcorn State’s Devon Francois, left, and Brandon Thompson bring down Arkansas-Pine Bluff’s Aaron Lagrone during Saturday’s game at Henderson Stadium.
LORMAN, Miss. — Arkansas-Pine Bluff has been looking for better performances from its running backs.
John Toney for sure delivered a big play to break the game open.
The junior from El Dorado bounced off a tackle and sprinted 54 yards to the end zone to break open a close game, and UAPB rolled to a 24-6 victory Saturday for its first SWAC win of the season.
UAPB coach Monte Coleman said this — an 18-point conference feat on the road — was a performance he was looking for after barely getting past Langston (Okla.) 17-14 and struggling to score deep in Alabama A&M territory in a 14-10 home loss.
“It took us a little while to get started, but once we got started, everything started clicking for us,” Coleman said.
Toney finished with 64 yards on four carries to lead UAPB (2-1, 1-1 SWAC), which finished with a season-high 210 yards on 40 rushing plays. He said the running backs hoped to play a bigger part in the offense against Alcorn State.
“It’s whatever we can get,” Toney said. “We’re all trying to get positive yards.”
UAPB had 356 total yards, including 146 from Ben Anderson on 16-of-29 passing with a touchdown pass to Dezmond Beverly and an interception. Anderson’s main target of the day was junior Ladarius Eckwood, who had eight catches for 74 yards.
“This is the win we wanted,” Anderson said. “We really wanted 30 points, but we’ll take 24. It’s the most we scored all season. We improved, we moved the ball when we needed to, we scored in the red zone, we missed a couple of receivers, but we’re going to capitalize.”
Anderson engineered his offense to a more consistent performance than in its first two games. The Lions’ defense also had its best game of the season holding the Braves to single digits.
UAPB led 7-6 at haltime after Alcorn State (1-2, 1-1 SWAC) bobbled a snap on an extra-point attempt and had a 45-yard field goal attempt by Ernesto Santillan deflected. He missed a 37-yard try wide left on the opening drive of the second half, but the Lions were held to two three-and-out series before they could score again.
Coleman called on redshirt freshman Aaron Lagrone to boost the running game on the Lions’ next drive. Lagrone, a Watson Chapel graduate playing his first game of the season after serving a suspension, ran for 35 yards on six straight carries from UAPB’s 11.
“The team was on a down run,” said Lagrone, who netted 28 yards on eight carries. “I kind of cranked it up a little bit. It felt really good.”
Toney then kept his balance bouncing off a would-be tackler and found a big hole to his left for the score.
“When I had first seen the hole, it had kind of closed up,” Toney said. “But I kept my feet running and my hats off to the offensive line. It was all on them. Good blocking on that play.”
While the UAPB defense held Alcorn State without a first down on its next three possessions, Tyler Strickland added a 38-yard field goal near the end of the third quarter to make it 17-6. At the 4:48 mark of the final period, when Anderson turned in a 34-yard scoring run with a gap to his right to close a four-play, 53-yard drive.
First-year Alcorn State coach Jay Hopson said the Braves kept fighting once UAPB started to pull away, but added it was a game the Lions deserved to win in the end.
“We didn’t do the things we needed to be successful, but I told them, (UAPB) might end up winning the West (division),” Hopson said. “We’re a team that’s still growing, still learning how to play the game. It is what it is. I thought we fought hard, but we just have to execute.”
Alcorn State changed quarterbacks on its final drive and put in John Gibbs, who went 2 for 5 for 24 yards and ran once for 21 yards. But UAPB’s David Watson made his second interception of the season in the end zone to stop the drive and deliver the knockout punch.
Alcorn starter Darius Smith was 14 for 33 for 117 yards.
UAPB took a 7-0 lead late in the first quarter when Anderson hit Beverly up the middle for a 10-yard completion. UAPB went seven plays and 63 yards on the possession, including a 30-yard run by Johnathan Johnson on second-and-1.
With the drive, Anderson bounced back from throwing an interception to Felando Warr in the end zone on UAPB’s previous march.
After the Lions forced the Braves to punt, Alcorn State responded by blocking a 41-yard try by Strickland. The Braves took their next series 11 plays and 76 yards, ending with a 2-yard TD run by Anthony Williams III with 4:06 left before halftime. But the placeholder mishandled the extra-point snap and Santillan was tackled behind the goal line.
The Lions did not earn another first down for the rest of the half, punting on two short drives. Coleman thought his team played sluggish toward halftime.
“They were playing at a higher tempo than we were, and I told us we have to pick it up,” Coleman said.
The Lions held the Braves’ leading rusher, Arnold Walker, to 29 yards on 13 carries.