A sense of urgency for Arkansas-Pine Bluff grew once the Golden Lions allowed a pair of one-play scoring drives and fell behind 21-0. Then they found their footing on both sides of the ball and led Alabama State 39-30 with 9:42 left.
But extra-point errors and late miscues haunted UAPB, and Alabama State scored 10 unanswered points to escape Golden Lion Stadium with a 40-39 victory Saturday before 6,213 in UAPB’s first home game of the season.
“For the most part, (Alabama State) did what they wanted to,” UAPB coach Monte Coleman said. “… Once we started playing well and matched their intensity, I thought the mood swing changed.”
With the loss, UAPB fell to 0-3 for the first time since 2008, Coleman’s first year as head coach. He said the Lions might have tried too hard in the early going.
“Missed assignments were some factors,” he said.
The offensive chemistry the Lions (0-3, 0-1 SWAC) had regained shortly after trailing by three touchdowns was suddenly lost in the final 9:42. After Bobby Wenzig converted a 30-yard field goal to make it 39-33, UAPB was forced three-and-out — and Tyler Strickland, who was already having a rough day — didn’t even get a punt off.
Strickland missed a field goal and two extra-point attempts Saturday. Then on that fourth down, he fielded a low snap and was forced to rush, but was stopped at his own 25, the original line of scrimmage. Three plays later, Daniel Duhart connected with Jamel Johnson on a wheel route, and Johnson turned it into a 21-yard touchdown play with 4:10 left. Wenzig, who made both of his field goal attempts, kicked the go-ahead extra point.
The next series for UAPB went completely south. Anderson was sacked three times for a total loss of 20 yards back to the Lions’ 2, and the Hornets (1-2, 1-1) managed to run the clock down to 2.4 seconds on their last drive.
“The offensive line just has to step up in clutch moments like that,” said Anderson, who was 23-for-38 for 291 yards and three touchdowns, but was sacked four times and picked off once. “That’s what the game is about, being clutch. I can’t be the only one that’s clutch. The whole team has to be clutch.”
UAPB tried to run a series of laterals on the final play, but Ladarius Eckwood was forced out of bounds at midfield and UAPB was flagged for an illegal forward pass to end the game.
Dropped passes plagued the Lions in the early going. Down 7-0, Brandon Kensey dropped a wide-open pass from Anderson on third down deep in their own territory, and a shanked Strickland punt led to Malcolm Cyrus’ 33-yard touchdown run on the next play to make it 14-0 in the Hornets’ favor.
Another pass from Anderson bounced off Dexter Bryant’s foot into the hands of Alabama State linebacker Kourtney Berry, who returned it to the UAPB 25 to set up Isaiah Crowell’s 25-yard touchdown run.
“Basically we had to just start making plays,” Anderson said, asked what he told his offensive unit after the large deficit. “We can’t just depend on a couple of people. Everybody as a team (has) got to step up. Once you drop a pass, you can’t think about it. Make up for it later in the game. It is what it is; you have to forget about this game as far as dropped passes.”
Bryant and Kensey would make up.
Anderson, who was 1-for-8 for 5 yards in the first quarter, led an 11-play, 65-yard drive enhanced by a pass interference penalty and ensuing flag for unsportsmanlike conduct against Alabama State coach Reggie Barlow. But Strickland blew a 39-yard field goal wide left at the 14:06 mark of the second quarter. Luckily for the Lions, they forced the Hornets’ first punt of the day, and holes started to open up. Anderson completed a 12-yard pass to freshman Draylon Willis on fourth-and-1 to the Bama State 20, and four plays later Kensey made up for his drop with a 3-yard touchdown haul-in. But a bad snap led to Strickland’s first missed extra point.
UAPB defensive end Anthony Smith recovered a fumble after a Marcus Gamble reception on the next series, setting up the Lions’ next scoring drive. Anderson aided a seven-play, 68-yard march with a 35-yard strike to Isiah Ferguson, and freshman Jeremiah Young capped things off with a 3-yard rush to pull the Lions within 21-13.
Wenzig made a 41-yard field goal with 1 second before halftime to give Bama State a 24-13 cushion.
Quarterback-turned-tight end C.J. Branch had a 10-yard touchdown reception on the opening drive of the second half to pull UAPB within 24-20. Freshman Braxton Hoof then forced a fumble when he knocked down Myles Everett on the kickoff return, and that set up a four-play, 26-yard scoring drive in which Young made all four carries.
The Lions built a 32-24 lead off a 31-yard TD reception for Bryant, who had five catches for 65 yards, but Dezmond Beverly dropped a two-point conversion pass from Anderson, just one of many scoring opportunities that would haunt the Lions.
Crowell rushed from 5 yards out for his second touchdown early in the fourth quarter to draw the Hornets within 32-30, but he was stopped short on his conversion try. The Lions marched right back and built their largest lead when Young tossed an 18-yard halfback pass to Anderson.
Ferguson had 115 yards on four catches for UAPB. Crowell, the reigning SWAC Offensive Player of the Week, had 161 yards on 29 carries, and Cyrus finished with 83 yards on 13 carries. Duhart completed 19 of 22 passes for 200 yards and two TDs.
“We had to find trust in our teammates,” Crowell said. “Sometimes, your teammates let you down, but you have to trust them, and we came and got a victory.”
UAPB played again with several key players still not cleared for unspecified reasons, including defensive linemen Damien Lee and Sean Robison and running backs Justin Billings and Aaron Lagrone. But Coleman said the Lions showed him that the team stepped up from their first two losses to Arkansas State and McNeese State, both blowouts on the road.
“For the most part, I felt like it was a game I thought we had an opportunity to win,” he said. “But you can’t miss field goals. You can’t miss extra points. You can’t drop balls. You can’t missed tackles, and you can’t miss a line on a play you call from a defensive standpoint.”