BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Tyler Strickland started the season playing hero for Arkansas-Pine Bluff. He could only dream ending it that way.
On Saturday, dream became reality. Strickland knocked through a 26-yard field goal in overtime to give the Golden Lions their first outright SWAC championship in school history, 24-21 over Jackson State at Legion Field. It’s the first time a SWAC final went overtime in the game’s 14-year history.
“Having a game-winning situation like that is something that any athlete dreams about,” said Strickland, who kicked the game winner in UAPB’s 17-14 season-opening win over Langston (Okla.) in Little Rock. “The past three weeks, I literally, every night, (had the) same dream. We’re going down like tied or down by two and that kind of stuff. It comes down to that field goal. I envisioned that so much that when it came down to it, I was so ready for it. Just for it to happen, it was a great feeling.” Strickland, who converted 11 of 17 field goals before Saturday, redeemed himself after missing a 25-yarder wide right on UAPB’s opening drive of the second half.
Strickland, in fact, was just one of many heroes for the Lions. With 2 minutes left in regulation, Willie Young went up the middle and caught a pass over his shoulder from Ben Anderson, completing a 95-yard touchdown play to tie the game at 21. On the opening overtime drive, defensive tackle Sean Robison earned a sack, batted down a pass and deflected Ryan Deising’s 43-yard field goal attempt to give the Lions the ball.
With just seconds left before halftime, Xavier Lofton sacked Jackson State quarterback Clayton Moore and forced a fumble that Bill Ross scooped up and returned 73 yards to pull the Golden Lions within 21-14, just as the Tigers (7-5) sought to build a three-score lead.
“I think we dressed out 76 guys,” UAPB coach Monte Coleman said. “… Heroes? There were 76, plus the coaching staff.”
Because of these heroics, UAPB (10-2) completed its first 10-win season in school history and matched its longest winning streak in school history at seven. The victory came in UAPB’s second SWAC championship game appearance (it lost to Alabama A&M in 2006) and gave the school its second SWAC title overall, joining the 1966 team that was co-champions with three other teams.
“We’re not here to win just one SWAC championship,” Coleman said. “We’re here to build a dynasty and win multiple SWAC championships over the years. With the right players, we will be back.”
The Lions also sought to deliver a performance that possibly would lead to a bigger crown. They entered the game ranked second only to Winston-Salem State (N.C.) in the Sheridan Broadcasting Network poll, which determines the black college national champion. Winston-Salem State (13-0) played West Texas A&M in the NCAA Division II semifinals Saturday.
The heroics were big for a team that fell behind 14-0 in the early going, seeing Jackson State use its key weapons to come up with big plays. The Tigers scored on three of their first five drives and threatened to make it four of six when Lofton came from behind to knock the ball out of Moore’s wind-up position, forcing the fumble returned by Ross. Moore reaggravated a tear in his shoulder on the hit and completed 1 of 9 second-half passes for 7 yards after starting 11 for 16 for 151.
Jackson State built its 21-7 lead in part by scoring off the first of two interceptions thrown by Anderson and taking advantage of a drive extended by a roughing-the-punter penalty against UAPB. But after both teams went three-and-out to start the game, it was a big play that put the Tigers on the board first as Rico Richardson — the SWAC Offensive Player of the Year — hauled in a 40-yard scoring pass from Moore on a go-route.
Two plays into UAPB’s next drive, Jackson State cornerback Qua Cox picked off an underthrown Anderson pass as he covered Ladarius Eckwood, setting up the next scoring series for the Tigers. Rakeem Sims ran 37 yards to cap an eight-play, 79-yard march late in the first quarter.
Jackson State, playing in its fourth SWAC title game (winning only in 2007), looked more like the experienced championship contender at first than the team that fell to 2-4 when it lost 34-24 in Pine Bluff on Oct. 6.
“I thought we played a good first half, but the second half, we didn’t execute like we should, but hat’s off to (the Lions), hat’s off to their defense, they played another great game,” Moore said.
The Lions responded with a 13-play series that covered 87 yards in almost 5 minutes, going into the second quarter. Anderson made an 8-yard carry that was ruled short of the end zone at the end of the period, but ran around the left end the very next play to put the Lions on the board.
Anderson finished 13 of 25 for 225 yards.
Just when it appeared UAPB would build more momentum, Jackson State’s defensive pressure started to rise. Following a pass interference penalty against Jackson State, Anderson was sacked on three straight plays to force a punt. He finished the game sacked six times.
Another bad break for the Lions extended the Tigers’ next drive. A player roughed punter Tony Dean to draw a 15-yard penalty and give the Tigers an automatic first down. They converted three consecutive third-down plays afterward and wrapped up a 16-play march that melted 6:37 off the clock with a 1-yard Moore run.
UAPB punted again and Jackson State drove from its own 47 in the final minute before Ross’ fumble return.
Before Young’s catch, it appeared the second half would go scoreless as neither team could move the ball longer than 28 yards following Strickland’s miss. On a fourth-and-6 early in the fourth quarter, Anderson was stopped for a 2-yard gain, but the Lions’ defense forced the Tigers to punt six straight times before the end of regulation.
“They just did a great job on defense slowing us down on some of the things we do,” Jackson State coach Rick Comegy said. “From the passing game to the running game, they did a good job of slowing down our quarterback and good coverage downfield.”
In overtime, Jackson State caught a break on the opening drive when Ross body-slammed Moore on a third-and-3 stop, giving the Tigers an automatic first down with an unnecessary roughness call. Then came Robison’s big defensive stops.
Billings, who wound up with 84 yards on 19 carries, found a big opening down UAPB’s sideline on the Lions’ first offensive play of OT and was stopped shy of the goal line, but he was credited for a 20-yard run to the 5 after a review. Shortly after the run, UAPB players set off a premature celebration apparently thinking Billings had score, nearly earning an excessive celebration penalty.
Instead, Billings made two carries for 3 yards and lost 7 on another, pushing the ball back to the 9 before Strickland connected.
“It’s been a great day,” Coleman said. “UAPB is on the map.”