GRAMBLING, La. — Arkansas-Pine Bluff just wanted to go about business as usual after winning the SWAC Western Division championship.
What the Golden Lions ended up getting was a late push from struggling Grambling State.
UAPB linebacker Xavier Lofton picked off a pass near the goal line on the last play of the game to preserve a 24-17 victory Saturday in Eddie Robinson Stadium. The win is the fifth straight for UAPB (8-2, 7-1 SWAC) and gives the Lions their most wins in a season since 2006, the only other year when the Lions played in the SWAC championship game.
“The thing we just had to do was maintain and take care of our business,” Lions coach Monte Coleman said. “Too many mistakes … killed drives and gave them momentum. I take my hat off to coach (Doug) Williams and his entire coaching staff. Their record really doesn’t indicate what kind of team they have right now. They fight and play extremely hard, and I’m just glad we were able to win this game.”
The numbers were definitely in the Lions’ favor; they finished with 526 total yards, including 318 rushing, while holding the Tigers (1-9, 0-8) to 258 total. Justin Billings ran 22 times for 130 yards and Dennis Jenkins had 19 totes for 105 yards to pace UAPB, the first time the Lions had two 100-yard rushers in the same game this season.
“Every week, we want to come out and run the football,” Billings said. “This week, we took a couple of steps back. … I honestly feel like, in my own opinion, the game shouldn’t have been this close.”
But Grambling made the late charge from a 24-7 deficit through three quarters. Phares Wabo converted a field goal early in the fourth to make it 24-10, and then Tyler Strickland ended UAPB’s next drive with an attempt wide left.
Grambling recovered a muffed punt at the UAPB 21 to set up its next score. On third-and-10 with 4:51 left, quarterback Frank Rivers ran a bootleg left and found tight end Jeremy Hernandez wide open in the back of the end zone.
Billings was stopped on a fourth-and-4 carry at the Grambling 42 with 2:06 left, giving the Tigers a chance to tie. In the final minute, Rivers completed a 7-yard pass on fourth-and-3 to Charles Bailey to the UAPB 28. A 5-yard false start penalty enforced a 10-second runoff against Grambling, and after a 12-yard pass and incomplete pass, Rivers threw a pick to Lofton, who brought the ball back to about the 30 to end the game.
“Our guys played hard,” Williams said. “We gave up a lot of yards, but when we had to have the stops, we came up with the stops. I think as a football team, sometimes you’re going to give up yards, but the most important thing is that you make the stops when you have to.”
Rivers, who usually splits time at quarterback with D.J. Williams, played the entire game and was 17 for 38 for 212 yards and a touchdown with two picks. He was sacked five times, including twice by Brandon Thurmond.
Ben Anderson was 14 for 22 for 208 yards and a score with two picks for UAPB. He also ran 11 times for 77 yards.
But he couldn’t engineer a drive to help the Lions put away the Tigers.
“I’m not going to take anything away from them,” Anderson said. “They’re still a good team. They did what they had to do. They stopped us on some drives. We’ve just got to execute better sometimes and cut down on the penalties.”
UAPB was flagged 11 times for 109 yards.
The Lions racked up 336 first-half yards and held the Tigers to 90 yards in taking a 24-7 halftime lead. UAPB went into the game with the goal of maintaining momentum from clinching the West and appeared it would from the very beginning.
On its first offensive play, Anderson connected with freshman Willie Young up the middle for a 66-yard touchdown pass. Although Anderson threw his first pick on the next drive and Jenkins lost a fumble later in the opening quarter, UAPB forced Grambling to punt on its first four series.
Anderson ran 8 yards on a quarterback draw early in the second quarter to put the Lions ahead 14-0. The Tigers cut it to 14-7 on the next series as Juwan Martin scored on a 13-yard run.
UAPB responded with a 53-yard drive to go back up two touchdowns, as Billings ran in from a yard out. With 37 seconds left before halftime, linebacker Bill Ross intercepted a pass to set up the Lions’ last scoring drive. Strickland connected from 46 yards out with 2 seconds left to give UAPB a 24-7 cushion.
Ladarius Eckwood had 86 yards on six receptions for the Lions. Hernandez had 79 yards on six catches.