BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Willie Young called it just another opportunity he got from the Arkansas-Pine Bluff coaching staff to make a play.
It turned out to be the biggest in wide receiver’s young collegiate career.
“I felt like we needed that play. I tell coach, any opportunity I get, just give me a shot, and I’ll make it happen.”
It was second-and-9 from UAPB’s own 5, with Jackson State leading 21-14. Young, a freshman from Chalmette, La., beat a defender up the middle and caught a pass from Ben Anderson over the shoulder near midfield with nothing but turf in front of him, turning the play into a 95-yard touchdown pass. It became the longest scoring play in SWAC championship history. More importantly, his score with 2 minutes to go along with Tyler Strickland’s extra point knotted the score, keeping the Golden Lions’ hopes of their first outright championship alive after they came up empty on their previous six drives.
“It’s my money route, so I know what’s about to take place,” Young said.
“He actually was on that,” Young said of the defender. “I had to play with his technique. I was going that side (pointing one way), going out, and I got to a point where I really just had to leave him, because once I come off my break, that’s when I really get into it. After that, it was history.”
Anderson was knocked down on the play and didn’t see Young make the catch.
“I went down and I just heard the fans yell,” he said. “I was hoping it was our fans or their fans. When I saw everybody on the sidelines running, I got up and started running with them. It was pretty exciting.”
On a team with a deep receiving corps, Young hadn’t been able to cash in every game. He came into Saturday’s game with just five receptions in six previous appearances, but averaged 35.4 yards per catch and scored two touchdowns — a 66-yard reception each against Texas Southern and Grambling State.
” I’m kind of used to the play, and I got the feel of it,” Young said. “So, it’s a touchdown to me.”
And it was a big strike for Anderson, who threw 7 of 11 passes for 162 yards in the fourth quarter alone to overcome a slow start. He finished with 225 yards on 13-of-25 passing and earned the game’s offensive MVP award, but had to overcome being sacked six times and throwing two interceptions.
“My teammates kept trusting me, kept saying ‘Keep making the big play. We know you can,’” Anderson said. “The opportunity presented itself and I did my best.”
Ross helps, almost hurts team
UAPB linebacker Bill Ross’ 73-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown helped him earn the game’s defensive MVP award. But the play nearly was overshadowed by a body slam.
On Jackson State’s last possession in regulation, quarterback Clayton Moore was stopped a yard short of a first down on third-and-3 when Ross picked him up and took him to the ground, picking up a personal foul penalty that kept the drive alive and moved the ball to the UAPB 48.
“I’ve been doing that my whole life and no one’s ever called it,” Ross said. “I’ve done it since high school and no one’s ever called it. I was really surprised; I didn’t know it was illegal. If I had known, I would have never done that. I didn’t mean to put my team in that situation.”
Luckily for the Lions, Moore was held to a 1-yard gain and threw two incompletions, prompting the Tigers to punt with 17 seconds left.
It wasn’t the 420-total yard performance the Tigers had in their 34-24 loss at UAPB on Oct. 6, but their offense counted on their key players to come up with big plays in the early going.
Jackson State outgained UAPB 270-78 through the first half, with the help of Rico Richardson’s 40-yard touchdown catch and Rakeem Sims’ 37-yard scoring run. But after scoring on three of their first five drives, the Tigers came up empty on their last 11 of the game and ended up being outgained 376-350.
“I think we just got caught by surprise,” Ross said. “I didn’t know what was going on that first half. I think our alignments were bad. We were a step over or a step too far away, and they just hit us. They’re a good football team.”
UAPB defensive end Brandon Thurmond said the Lions started running stunts and making different reads in the second half to stop Jackson State’s ground game. Thurmond finished with seven tackles including his nation-leading 17th sack of the season, which tied a school record.
“We knew they were a big run-the-ball team, but coming into the game, we were so hyped up to get the game started, that right there slowed us down a lot,” Thurmond said.
After the game, Ross jumped over the fence in celebration to see his mother, having won the championship in his home state (he hails from Wetumpka).
“Sounds like ‘The Waterboy,’ doesn’t it?’” UAPB coach Monte Coleman said, drawing laughter during the press conference.
The game ball goes to …
Young for his long catch-and-run, although Anderson and Ross were named offensive and defensive MVPs of the game. Young had 136 yards on three receptions.