HOUSTON — Arkansas-Pine Bluff certainly had its share of doubters to prove wrong when the season started.
A year after finishing second in the SWAC Western Division, UAPB was predicted to finish third this season behind defending champion Grambling State and Prairie View A&M. Instead, both Grambling and Prairie View have fallen short of expectations, and UAPB is playing its most consistent football in recent years.
It all has led the Golden Lions to just their second berth in the SWAC championship game, which will be Dec. 8 in Birmingham, Ala. Not only that, the Lions punched their championship ticket with two games left in the regular season.
“I tell my team all the time, right now this is the best football team I ever coached,” fifth-year head coach Monte Coleman said. “The resilience they have to fight when the outside world didn’t give us a lot of a chance. They believed in themselves. They believed in the phases, the offense, the defense and special teams. They believed in the coaching staff.
“All we had to do was get on a roll that we did and get a little confidence. It really didn’t matter what they announced at (SWAC) media day. We knew what we could do.”
Through two games, there was still some doubt about what the Lions could do. They had barely escaped an NAIA team in Langston (Okla.) 17-14 in the opener and missed out on plenty of scoring opportunities in a 14-10 home-opening loss to Alabama A&M.
Then they won two SWAC games on the road before taking a 40-13 beating from Tennessee State, then the No. 1-ranked black college team in the nation. But since, the Lions have kicked into high gear.
They gained 466 or more yards three times in the past four games, all victories. Saturday’s win was their largest of the season (46 points) and saw them post their second-highest point total of the season.
It’s also UAPB’s largest victory over Texas Southern in history, topping a 42-0 decision in 2004.
Yep, the Lions knew all along they’re good. And they showed it.
“I do not listen to what the SWAC says,” said linebacker Bill Ross, coming off 12 tackles and an interception return for a touchdown. “They had me second-team preseason (All-SWAC). They always underestimate Pine Bluff. I knew we were good. I knew we have good players. Whatever they want to say in the preseason, look at us now.”
Dunn leads touchdown drive
Ben Anderson didn’t have to engineer all the scoring drives for UAPB on Saturday.
Third-string quarterback William Dunn hadn’t attempted a pass all season going into the Texas Southern game. But with a 42-3 lead going into the fourth quarter, he relieved Anderson and took over the Lions’ last two drives of the game.
The redshirt senior from Tunica, Miss., made his first drive count. He threw a 13-yard touchdown pass to Ladarius Eckwood, his only passing attempt of the game, to seal a seven-play, 72-yard series. Then he helped UAPB take 9:18 off the clock with 15 plays, leading the Lions to the Texas Southern 1 before taking a knee twice to keep from running up the score.
Coleman said it was “very gratifying” to see Dunn cap off a big victory in that fashion.
“I heard one of the kids say he was on the sidelines crying from emotions because he doesn’t get a lot of chances to play,” Coleman said. “When you go back and look at it, this is the first year he’s been able to travel with the team. To be able to come in and contribute the way he did is a plus and shows the character and determination he has.”
The game ball goes to …
UAPB defensive lineman Brandon Thurmond, who made three sacks for a total loss of 12 yards. He accounted for half of UAPB’s sacks and finished with six solo tackles.
Next for the Lions …
UAPB pays a visit to Grambling State for its final road game of the season, looking to reach eight victories for the first time since 2006. Game time at Eddie Robinson Stadium is set for 2 p.m.