CELEBRATING SWAC WIN — Golden Lions go from also-rans to champions

Before the football season began, the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff football team was no overwhelming favorite to win even the Western Division of the Southwestern Athletic Conference.

After finishing the 2011 campaign with records of 6-5 overall and 5-4 in the SWAC, UAPB only earned two out of 25 first-place votes in the SWAC preseason poll, where it was predicted to finish third in the West. The defending conference champion, Grambling State, had 20 first-place votes, with Prairie View (1) and Southern (2) receiving the others within the division.

Imagine the surprise those voters must have felt when they saw that UAPB won the division by five games — almost a half-season’s worth — over second place with an 8-1 mark.

Add to its regular-season success the victory in the SWAC championship game over Jackson State, and 2012 has been a season full of highs for UAPB:

• The first outright SWAC championship in school history and second SWAC title overall, following the 1966 co-championship

• The first 10-win season in history (10-2)

• A current seven-game winning streak, tied for the longest in school history (the 2006 Western Division championship team also won seven straight), and

• A No. 2 ranking in the final Sheridan Broadcasting Network poll, which determines the black college national champion

In addition, 13 UAPB players were named All-SWAC performers following the regular season — 10 more than named to the Preseason All-SWAC teams. Defensive end Brandon Thurmond, whose 17.5 sacks leads the NCAA across all divisions, was named the SWAC Defensive Player of the Year.

The Golden Lions’ football season began the way it ended — with a sophomore transfer kicker from Alpine, Calif., playing hero.

Game 1: UAPB 17,

Langston 14

• Sept. 1, War Memorial Stadium, Little Rock

• Attendance: 14,500

Tyler Strickland, a sophomore transfer from Grossmont College in California, converted a 27-yard field goal as time ran out to give the Lions a season-opening victory over an NAIA team that stunned the NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision team a year ago on the same field.

Demarcus Berry, a freshman defensive lineman, forced a fumble from Langston quarterback Jac’Quon Miles with 1:01 remaining to set up the winning drive. UAPB went 22 yards in four plays on the final series.

After a scoreless first quarter, the game was delayed with 5:37 left in the second quarter because of lightning in the area. With 45 seconds remaining in the first half, Dezmond Beverly pulled in a 33-yard touchdown pass from Ben Anderson to give UAPB a 14-7 lead. Langston tied it at 14 early in the fourth quarter.

The victory was UAPB’s first in a season opener since 2004.

Game 2 — Alabama A&M 14, UAPB 10

Sept. 8, Golden Lion Stadium

Attendance: 9,500

UAPB did not score on four drives inside the Alabama A&M 25-yard line, and that proved costly in the first SWAC game of the season for both teams.

UAPB managed to hold A&M to 221 total yards while gaining 362, but went 2 for 9 on third-down conversions and 0 for 3 on fourth-down conversions. A&M ran 11 plays on its final drive, which lasted 8:17, to run out the clock.

Wesley Hawthorne (77 yards) and Beverly (60) each had four receptions to lead UAPB.

Game 3 — UAPB 24, Alcorn State 6

Sept. 15, Spinks-Casem Stadium, Lorman, Miss.

Attendance: 8,200

The Golden Lions, who led 7-6 at halftime, broke the game open in the third quarter with a 54-yard rushing touchdown by John Toney. He had a team-high 64 yards on four carries.

Ladarius Eckwood reeled in eight passes for 74 yards to lead the Lions, and Thurmond finished with two quarterback sacks. UAPB, however was saddled with 12 penalties for 115 yards.

This was UAPB’s first game against Alcorn State’s Jay Hopson, the first non-black head coach in SWAC history.

Game 4 — UAPB 24, Alabama State 21

Sept. 20, Cramton Bowl, Montgomery, Ala.

Attendance: 18,110

In one of the Hornets’ final games ever at the historic stadium, the Lions stunned the Eastern Division favorites in front of a national-television crowd.

UAPB totaled 466 yards of offense with the help of Justin Billings’ 127 yards on 12 carries and Anderson’s 220 yards on 17-of-30 passing. Eckwood caught five of those passes for 95 yards.

Strickland nailed a 50-yard field goal to give the Lions a 17-14 lead in the third quarter. Billings extended that with a 39-yard touchdown run.

But Alabama State kept it close. After scoring with 3:19 left, the Hornets forced the Lions to punt with a chance to either tie or win the game. Their last drive stalled after three completions and an 8-yard rush by Greg Jenkins, and Bobby Wenzig missed a 44-yard field goal attempt with 56 seconds left, allowing UAPB to escape.

Game 5 — Tennessee State 40, UAPB 13

Sept. 29, LP Field, Nashville, Tenn.

Attendance: 31,765

The Lions’ recent success helped them break into the Sheridan Broadcasting Network black college poll at No. 7 and set up a showdown with the No. 1-ranked Tigers in their homecoming game.

Things were going well as first for UAPB, leading 10-0 after the first quarter. But the Lions came up empty on their next five drives, as Tennessee State clawed to a 12-10 lead.

Strickland hit a 30-yard field goal early in the second half to put the Lions back in front, but they did not earn a first down on their next four possessions. The Tigers, meanwhile, scored on two short runs and two Michael German touchdown passes to take control of the game.

Tennessee State outgained UAPB 463-280 in total yards in the school’s first meeting in 65 years.

Game 6 — UAPB 34, Jackson State 24

Oct. 6, Golden Lion Stadium

Attendance: 6,953

Dennis Jenkins ran for 154 yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries, and UAPB endured its second weather delay of the season in its first victory over Jackson State in three years.

Jenkins took over the running game for Billings, who left the game in the first half with a broken nose. Jenkins’ touchdown runs went for 23 and 50 yards in the second quarter, when UAPB raced to a 21-7 lead.

Three Jackson State players each ran for 100 yards, but UAPB linebackers Jer-ryan Harris and Xavier Lofton each came up with 15 tackles to lead s successful defensive charge. Bill Ross added 14 tackles, including a fourth-and-1 stop that set up UAPB’s insurance touchdown drive.

Game 7 — UAPB 50, Southern 21

Oct. 20, A.W. Mumford Stadium, Baton Rouge, La.

Attendance: 13,500

In a battle for first place in the Western Division, UAPB scored its most points in one half (41) since 1989, when it scored 39 in a 59-0 victory over Lane College. The 50 points were the most for a UAPB team in at least three seasons.

Anderson completed 15 of 20 passes for a career-high 296 yards, and Ross returned an interception 60 yards for a touchdown, one of his three scores on the season. The Lions totaled 510 yards of offense, getting 131 on three receptions by Eckwood.

Game 8 — UAPB 10, Mississippi Valley State 0

Oct. 27, Golden Lion Stadium

Attendance: 14,604

The Lions celebrated homecoming with their largest home crowd of the season, but they weren’t in for a homecoming blowout.

Despite its 2-5 and 2-3 conference records, Valley came into the game with the third-ranked defense in the Football Championship Subdivision. The unit was effective, holding the Lions to 259 total yards and 10 second-quarter points.

Both teams had a bad case of the fumbles, losing three each.

The shutout was UAPB’s first in four years.

Game 9 — UAPB 49, Texas Southern 3

Nov. 3, BBVA Compass Stadium, Houston

Attendance: 2,968

UAPB clinched the Western Division in dominating fashion in front of a sparse crowd for Texas Southern’s homecoming in its new stadium.

The Lions endured another weather delay, this one lasting almost an hour, but they came out firing. Eckwood’s 74-yard touchdown catch set the tone for the offense, which rolled up 476 yards against the Tigers.

Other big plays: Freshman Willie Young pulled in a 66-yard scoring pass, Ross returned an interception 39 yards for a TD, and backup William Dunn, who hadn’t attempted a pass all season before this game, threw one to Eckwood early in the fourth quarter.

Game 10 — UAPB 24, Grambling State 17

Nov. 10, Eddie Robinson Stadium, Grambling, La.

Attendance: 7,324

Grambling State scored 10 points in the fourth quarter to pull within a touchdown and got the ball back with 2:06 left, but Lofton picked off Frank Rivers near the goal line to preserve UAPB’s victory.

Billings ran 22 times for 130 yards and a touchdown to lead the Lions. Jenkins added 105 yards on 19 carries, but left the game with a bruised kidney that would eventually cost him the rest of the season.

Young hauled in another 66-yard TD pass from Anderson.

Game 11 — UAPB 42, Prairie View A&M 41

Nov. 17, Golden Lion Stadium

Attendance: 3,088

The Lions went for 604 total yards, including 163 on Billings’ 22 carries, but could never shake off the Panthers until the end.

Again, it would take a clutch defensive play to rescue the Lions from a potential upset. Free safety Jarvis Webb forced a fumble by running back Courtney Brown that Lofton recovered at the UAPB 4 with 1:52 remaining. Prairie View had just set up the drive about 5 minutes earlier when Brian Medlock picked off Anderson in the end zone.

Prairie View had the best offensive performance of any team against UAPB this season (476 yards and 41 points) but, surprisingly, never went for a two-point conversion each time it pulled within two points.

SWAC championship — UAPB 24, Jackson State 21, OT

Dec. 8, Legion Field, Birmingham, Ala.

Attendance: 32,480

The first overtime game in SWAC championship history included plenty of heroics by the Lions.

UAPB trailed 14-0 after the first quarter but came back with a 13-play, 87-yard drive to get on the board. A roughing-the-punter penalty against UAPB extended a drive Jackson State capped with another score to make it 21-7. The Tigers sought to extend the lead just before halftime, when Ross made a game-changing play.

Lofton sacked quarterback Clayton Moore and forced a fumble Ross returned 73 yards to cut the deficit to 21-14.

Both teams struggled to get any offense going in the second half. That was until Young went up the middle, beat a defender, and then made an over-the-shoulder catch from Anderson for a 95-yard catch-and-run TD with 2 minutes left in regulation.

On the first overtime drive, defensive tackle Sean Robison sacked a quarterback, batted down a pass and deflected Ryan Deising’s 43-yard field goal attempt to give UAPB the ball. Billings then made an apparent 25-yard TD run that was called back to the Jackson State 5 when video evidence showed he stepped out of bounds. He netted minus-4 yards on his next three carries before Strickland converted a 26-yard field goal to win the championship.

Anderson was named the offensive MVP, overcoming two interceptions and throwing for 225 yards and the game-tying touchdown. Ross, who had 10 tackles, was named the defensive MVP.