The Next Obstacle: UAPB must whip back into shape defensively for JSU

Tennessee State scored 40 points and totaled nearly twice the yardage Arkansas-Pine Bluff allowed on average in its first four games of the season. That’s not exactly how UAPB wanted to fare defensively before taking on Jackson State.

In a 40-13 victory at LP Field, Tennessee State had 463 yards of offense and scored the final 28 points of the game. The yardage raised UAPB’s total defense per-game average from 262 to 302.2, dropping the Golden Lions from sixth to 11th among Football Championship Subdivision teams in that category.

At least the Lions are still among the top 10 percent. But their defense seeks to improve against a Jackson State ballclub that’s had its way with the unit in recent memory.

“I feel confident about our defense,” UAPB coach and defensive coordinator Monte Coleman said Tuesday. “Jackson State’s a very good football team, no different than Tennessee State and any other teams we played thus far. The team I worry most about is us.”

Jackson State has scored 100 points on UAPB in the past two meetings — winning 52-30 at Pine Bluff in 2010 and 48-10 in Jackson, Miss., last year. The Tigers only average 24.2 points per game this season, but their 380.6 yards per game trails only Alabama A&M for first in the SWAC and is just one spot ahead of UAPB’s 349.6.

While UAPB held Alabama A&M to 221 yards in a 14-10 home loss Sept. 8, Tennessee State looked unstoppable against the Lions.

“We got too lax,” defensive end Brandon Thurmond said. “Defense wasn’t running to the ball anymore. We weren’t being physical. We’ve got to keep our heads straight and finish through the whole 60 minutes.”

Tennessee State had plenty to do with it, as UAPB’s defense was forced to stay on the field after the offense could not find the rhythm it had in the first quarter.

“We made the adjustments against Tennessee State,” Coleman said. “That game reminded me a lot of the UTEP game (a 31-10 UTEP win in 2010). We played well the first half, but because of numbers that they have, we’re not able to keep up with them. They’re able to substitute more than we can do, and that wears us down.”

UAPB has a couple of key cogs on defense with Thurmond, whose seven sacks are still the most among FCS players, and linebacker Bill Ross, whose 51 tackles lead the SWAC. They’ve helped the defense have some success without linebacker Joe Dalton, who’s been out with a right-foot injury.

An academic issue apparently will keep Dalton off the field for the rest of the season. Coleman said Tuesday he doesn’t think the senior will return to the team after a grade in a summer school class he took “didn’t come back in his favor.”

Defensively, the Lions will have to avoid being worn down by Jackson State’s passing game, which features senior wide receiver Rico Richardson, the FCS’ fifth-leading receiver at 119.4 yards per game. The Tigers utilize a two-quarterback system with Clayton Moore (130.6 passing yards per game, 53.2 percent completion rate) and Dedric McDonald 116.2 ypg, 50.9 percent).

“They run a lot of sophisticated routes, so the main key is to stay disciplined,” UAPB free safety Ryan Shaw said.

The Lions haven’t talked yet about particular matchups against the Tigers’ skill players, Shaw said, but they plan to keep their eyes on Richardson, who averages 17.9 yards per catch and has five touchdowns.

“He looks to be the best and you can tell he wants to be the best out there,” Shaw said.