MONTGOMERY, Ala. — With the help of big catches from Ladarius Eckwood and big gains by Justin Billings, Arkansas-Pine Bluff set a number of season highs on offense before a national-television audience Thursday night.
And the Golden Lions needed every one, escaping the Cramton Bowl with a 24-21 victory over Alabama State in a game televised on ESPNU.
UAPB finished with 466 yards of total offense, including Billings’ 127 yards on 12 carries and Ben Anderson’s 220 yards on 17-of-30 passing. All three yardage totals are season highs, as is Ladarius Eckwood’s 92 yards on five receptions and Dennis Jenkins’ 82 yards on 19 totes.
“We just came together and started clicking like we knew we could,” Anderson said. “This may have been our best performance of the year, but we know we can do better. We’re just glad we got this win and we’re ready to go back home.”
Billings said the offensive line got him going.
“It was a complete team effort,” Billings said. “(Graduate assistant Rontrell) Bailey told me all week, it’s going to be there, and he just stayed in my ear, just preaching and preaching to have faith in the guys up front.”
But Alabama State (2-2, 2-1 SWAC) nearly spoiled the Lions’ offensive party.
The Hornets pulled within 24-21 with 3:19 left, stringing a 69-yard scoring drive capped by a 17-yard pass from Greg Jenkins to Justin Robinson. They held the Lions to 3 yards on the ensuing possession, saved by offensive lineman Ryan Savage’s recovery of a Dennis Jenkins fumble, and got the ball back at their own 30 with 2:06 remaining.
After three completions and an 8-yard rush, Greg Jenkins tossed three straight incompletions to set up a field goal attempt for the tie. But Bobby Wenzig, the two-time reigning SWAC Special Teams Player of the Week, pushed a 44-yard field goal attempt wide right with 56 seconds left.
Anderson took two kneel-downs to run out the clock and seal the Lions’ fate.
“This is one of the biggest wins we’ve had in a long time,” UAPB coach Monte Coleman said. “We played a real good football team in Alabama State. We knew coming in they were real good. They have a lot of resilience, they’re coached well, and this is a big, big victory for us.”
For much of the game, UAPB had a handle on Alabama State’s offense, holding the Hornets to 135 total yards in the first half. Alabama State finished with 330 yards, including Jenkins’ 187 yards on 16-of-32 passing and team-high 102 yards on 18 completions.
UAPB has started 3-1 overall for the second straight season and, at 2-1, has sole possession of first place in the SWAC Western Division for now. Alabama State fell out of a first-place tie with Alabama A&M in the Eastern Division.
Eckwood had 96 yards on four first-half receptions, surpassing his previous season high of 74 yards at Alcorn State on Saturday. He scored on a 27-yard bubble screen catch-and-run with 54 seconds left before halftime to give the Lions a 14-7 lead, one play after making a 37-yard reception.
“(Alabama State) had a lot of open spaces in the middle and outside on the coverage was one-on-one,” Eckwood said. “I knew I could beat that guy over the top anytime I wanted to.”
In all, UAPB totaled 339 first-half yards, 17 away from matching its total against Alcorn State.
But Alabama State went right to work on the opening drive of the second half and evened things up. Jenkins completed a 33-yard pass to Cornelius Fenderson to the UAPB 13, and Malcolm Cyrus weaved his way into the end zone on the next play.
UAPB’s Tyler Strickland broke the tie on the next possession with a 50-yard field goal, tying a school record set by Aaron Wall. Strickland had missed a 40-yarder wide left early in the second quarter.
UAPB held Alabama State to three-and-out on its next two possessions. The Lions capitalized after the latter stop with a two-play drive, getting a 16-yard run from Dennis Jenkins to set up Billings’ 39-yard sprint through the left hole to push the lead to 24-14.
How the Lions — who had the nation’s eighth-best total defense going into the game — would try to stop Alabama State running back Isaiah Crowell was a focal point in the game. Crowell had 40 yards on 11 carries, but scored on a 4-yard run with 5:07 left in the first half to tie it at 7.
The run was Crowell’s fifth TD of the season, matching his total from last season at Georgia.
Neither team scored on its first possession of the game. The second drive got the Lions on the board, with the help of Isiah Ferguson’s 39-yard reception from Anderson and the quarterback’s 21-yard run to the Alabama State 4. After a late-hit penalty moved the ball up to the 2, Billings punched it into the end zone from a yard out on third-and-goal.
UAPB will try to finish its three-game road swing unbeaten Sept. 29 for Tennessee State’s homecoming.