Special to The Commercial/Mike Adam
Justin Billings (1), shown in a Sept. 8 game against Alabama A&M, ran for a season-high 127 yards last Thursday at Alabama State.
Quarterback Ben Anderson simply said the Arkansas-Pine Bluff offense started clicking like it could after last Thursday’s victory at Alabama State.
But after it racked up 466 total yards in a 24-21 victory, the unit seems more to be firing on all cylinders, which is something they’ve been trying to do all season.
“It’s huge momentum,” running back Justin Billings said after the win. “You’re going into a hostile environment, and next week, it’s Tennessee State. It’s better to go in 3-1 than 2-2.”
Well, the week is here, and UAPB’s offense is clicking just in time.
This Saturday, the Golden Lions (3-1, 2-1 SWAC) will visit Tennessee State for the Tigers’ homecoming. Tennessee State (4-0, 1-0 Ohio Valley) has taken over the No. 1 ranking in the Sheridan Broadcasting Network black college poll and is ranked fifth in all of the Football Championship Subdivision in scoring defense with 13.5 points per game allowed.
UAPB, ranked seventh in the poll, is sixth in scoring defense at 13.75.
The Lions struggled to score in their first two games against Langston (Okla.) and Alabama A&M, putting up no more than 17 points each time, but they didn’t lack in total yards, averaging 334 per game going into Alabama State. They’ve scored 24 points in each of their last two games, including a 24-6 win at Alcorn State on Sept. 15.
Plus, the Lions hadn’t had anyone rush for more than 65 yards in a game until Billings netted 127 on Alabama State. Yet nothing is different about UAPB’s offense from the start of the season, he said.
“We just cleaned everything up,” he said. “We were motivated. Alabama State, coming into the game, said, ‘We’re going to force them to throw the ball.’ We took that as a personal challenge to run the ball and we did that.”
Billings met the challenge with his season-best on 12 carries, accounting for just more than half of the team’s yardage on the ground.
UAPB didn’t just settle for the run at Alabama State. Ladarius Eckwood had eclipsed his previous season high in the first half alone with 86 receiving yards, including a 27-yard touchdown with 54 seconds left before halftime to give UAPB a 14-7 lead.
“Coach told us we were going to be running the ball a lot, and we came in and tried to establish that,” Eckwood said. “But as the game went on, a couple of things opened up for us, and we decided we wanted to throw the ball.”
Eckwood’s production has increased along with the offense. He has pulled down 166 receiving yards the past two ball games, more than tripling his total in the first two games (53).
UAPB coach Monte Coleman is expecting a big season out of Eckwood, who missed all of last season with a hamstring injury.
“Eckwood is a big-play man. We know that,” Coleman said. “We throw it to him because of that. He caught 102 passes his senior year in high school. We expect him to do the same thing.”
Anderson’s 220 yards at Alabama State is a season high, but he’s more excited about the balanced attack the Lions have now shown they’re able to employ.
“That’s how we want to play, to balance it out,” he said. “They didn’t know whether we would run or pass based on our formations. That’s what we should have been all season. I’m glad it’s finally happening, though.”
UAPB (3-1) at
Tennessee State (4-0)
• When: 5 p.m. Saturday
• Where: LP Field, Nashville, Tenn.
• Radio: KUAP-FM 89.7
• SBN black college rankings: UAPB No. 7, Tennessee State No. 1
• Last meeting: Tennessee State 20, UAPB 0, in 1947