Flexing Its Muscle: UAPB’s standout defense eyes another solid game

With the nation’s leader in total sacks and the SWAC’s leading tackler, Arkansas-Pine Bluff has earned its spot among the Football Championship Subdivision’s best in total defense.

Three weeks after giving up 476 yards to Prairie View A&M, UAPB wants to show its true defensive strength one more time.

Jackson State is well aware of the Golden Lions’ capabilities. The Tigers have a strong defense of their own, ranked just behind the Lions nationally in total defense in 14th. But against the Lions, they also found success moving the ball, gaining 420 total yards.

UAPB defensive end Brandon Thurmond, the SWAC’s Defensive Player of the Year, wants the Tigers to have a tougher time than that come Saturday, although Jackson State lost four of its seven fumbles in the first meeting. The long wait to help his defense flex its muscle one more time is almost over.

“Every day we come out here going hard, going over plays we think they might be doing,” Thurmond said. “We’re just executing the plays, that’s all we do. We’re running to the football, and the chips are going to land where they fall.”

UAPB will be in a rematch with a Jackson State team that’s been on a roll since it lost the 34-24 decision in Pine Bluff on Oct. 6. Jackson State has won five straight games — one shy of UAPB’s current string — behind the two-quarterback system of Clayton Moore (1,705 yards, 52 percent completion rate) and Dedric McDonald (710 yards, 50.8 percent).

While their main target, SWAC Offensive Player of the Year Rico Richardson (1,081 yards and 10 touchdowns on 56 receptions), is the main focal point of the unit, the Tigers have thrived with a deeper commitment to running the football.

Their 186.5 yards per game on the ground is just 33.4 yards shy of their passing average, and their 26 rushing touchdown is 12 more than what they have passing.

“We had to go with what we do best,” Jackson State coach Rick Comegy said. “We try to get the best product possible.”

Thurmond has seen some improvements in the Tigers offense since the Oct. 6 game.

“Their pass blocking is a whole lot better than what they did when we played against them,” he said. “But we’re ready for whatever they do.”

UAPB has a dependable product of its own — its defense.

Thurmond has 16.5 total sacks this season, which leads the NCAA in all divisions. Linebacker Bill Ross leads the SWAC with 117 tackles and has returned two of his three interceptions for touchdowns. And free safety Ryan Shaw has a team-high 13 pass breakups to go with 59 tackles.

All three Lions were named All-SWAC players earlier this week.

“We’ve got to have our own bond toward each other, understanding each other, making sure everybody doing their right assignments,” Thurmond said.

The Lions got some good news during the three-week break with the improvement of linebacker Jer-ryan Harris’ health. The team’s third leading tackler injured an elbow during the Prairie View A&M game, but the swelling went down “considerably,” coach Monte Coleman said and Harris has been back practicing.