Arkansas-Pine Bluff has a 0-3 start to break tonight, and the Golden Lions don’t want the next two weeks to feel longer than necessary.
Alcorn State marks UAPB’s final opponent before the Lions take their first of two off-weeks this season. Following the off-week, UAPB faces a rematch of last season’s SWAC championship game at Jackson State.
So, coach Monte Coleman would like for his Lions to flex their defending championship muscle tonight, noting the sense of urgency that’s covered the team since their conference opener last Saturday against Alabama State.
“This is huge,” Coleman said. “We’re not in a panic mode, but we’re in a mode of urgency. I think there is a difference.”
The urgency is much greater, given that none of the Golden Lions who have not been cleared to play this season have had their statuses change for today. That means another game without senior running back Justin Billings, who was hoping for a 1,000-yard rushing season, and senior defensive lineman Sean Robison, one of the SWAC title game’s heroes.
Whether freshman starting running back Jamie Smith will be a go tonight remains to be determined. He practiced some this week, but is still recovering from a stinger in his shoulder that was aggravated against Alabama State.
“My attitude right now is that we’re going to play with what we got,” Coleman said. “If we get some cleared, then we’ll play them, implement them (in our scheme). We’re ready to go with what we have. We had a great week of practice. We polished up (Thursday), and that’s what we’re going to need to be victorious in this ballgame.”
Coleman’s attitude is not one of panic.
The Lions aren’t panicking after blowing a nine-point lead late in a 40-39 loss to the Hornets. They did leave some points off the board with three missed conversion attempts and a missed field goal, but a couple of other elements from that game were missing that Coleman wants to see tonight against the Braves (2-1, 1-0 SWAC).
“Two things we’ve got to do: We’ve definitely got to start faster than we did last week, and that’s something we prided ourselves on last year,” Coleman said. “And the other thing is to finish. A play here late in the fourth quarter, I feel, is all it would have taken to win that game.”
UAPB had time to turn back Alcorn State, but Ben Anderson was sacked three straight times on the Lions’ next-to-last drive, forcing a punt.
The collapse happened after UAPB stormed back from a 21-0 deficit to lead 39-30 with 9:42 left. An opportunity to take down the SWAC’s Eastern Division favorite was lost.
Now comes the next best thing for the Lions — to take down one of the division’s co-leaders in Alcorn State.
The Braves aren’t a flashy team, but they are good at getting the ball to a wide array of playmakers and scoring points as needed. They scored right at their average last Saturday in a 35-28 home win against Mississippi Valley State.
They’re a program on the rise under second-year head coach Jay Hopson, but he doesn’t think the Braves have played their best game yet.
“I want to see us execute on a higher level than we’re executing right now,” Hopson said. “A lot of people look at it like, ‘Oh, we scored 35 points,’ but I don’t think we’re executing on either side of the ball the way I want to see them execute.”
Senior Arnold Walker leads the Braves’ rushing game with five touchdowns and an average of 72 yards per game. Quarterback John Gibbs has completed 62 percent of his passes and thrown for 166.3 yards per game, while five receivers average double-digits in yardage, led by Tavoris Doss’ 38 yards per game.
Alcorn State has allowed more total yards per game than it’s totaled (357.7 to 312.3), but Coleman still gives coach Hopson’s defense high regards.
“They’re running the football extremely well. Their running back moved to 10th in Alcorn history. They’re very physical on defense and run to the football. If I had to put an identity to them, I would say it’s that they’re a tough football team, not a finesse team,” Coleman said.
Coleman stresses toughness from his team, and the Lions are finding themselves in a tough path back to the SWAC title game. But a much-needed victory will make their title defense — and upcoming off-week — a little easier.