Something rare happened late in Arkansas-Pine Bluff’s homecoming game against Mississippi Valley State, and it nearly led to trouble for UAPB.
Andre Mitchell muffed a punt deep in his own territory. Valley recovered the football at the 18, starting a drive in UAPB’s half of the field for the third time in the game, and threatened to cut a 10-0 deficit with 3:22 left in the game.
But a minute later, Valley lost the ball on downs. The Golden Lions stopped a run for no gain and forced Garrick Jones into three incomplete passes, including a fourth-down breakup by free safety Ryan Shaw.
After the Lions punted, the Delta Devils got one last drive, starting at the UAPB 49. But defensive lineman Damien Lee sacked Jones and forced a fumble Brandon Thurmond pounced on to seal the Lions’ win.
And they kept Valley from scoring with good field position.
“They don’t get out of the moment,” UAPB coach Monte Coleman said. “Anytime when they’ve got to go, they’re going to go. That was pretty obvious (Saturday) evening for the defense. They got put in some tight predicaments. They rose to the occasion.”
UAPB’s defense outdid Valley’s, which is still ranked third in the Football Championship Subdivision with 279.63 total yards allowed per game. The Lions only gained 259 against the Devils but held them to 212 yards on 69 plays, three more than UAPB.
With that, the Lions (6-2, 5-1 SWAC) moved up to 16th among the FCS’ top defenses at 314.50 per game.
“We weren’t worried about Valley’s defense at all,” UAPB linebacker Jer-ryan Harris said. “We were more so worried about us doing our own assignments and playing as a unit because when we play as a unit, we really are a better defense.”
Coleman, who’s also UAPB’s defensive coordinator, said it wasn’t a case of his defense competing against Valley’s, although the Lions spent more time without the ball.
The Devils owned possession for 37 minutes, 15 seconds — 14 ½ minutes longer than the Lions — and had an average starting position of their own 39. Yet, the Lions still pitched their first shutout since Coleman’s first victory as head coach — 42-0 over Lincoln (Mo.) in 2008.
“Our goal period is to be the number-one defense in the SWAC,” said Thurmond, who leads the nation in sacks with 10.5. “By us being put in situations like that, (that) makes us seem like we are the number-one defense in the SWAC. That was nothing to us.”
Valley had a chance to end the shutout in the third quarter. A pass interference call against UAPB extended a drive that went to the Lions’ 10 before Kevin Monzon missed a 27-yard field goal.
“When they called a flag, I wanted the defense to go back out there so we can make them go negative and take away some of the yards they gained on us in the first half,” Thurmond said.
The shutout came in handy because UAPB had its own struggles against Valley’s defense.
“That’s the absolute best thing about this football team, it’s a team,” Coleman said. “If the offense doesn’t have it going today, the defense will pick up the slack. If the defense doesn’t have it today, the offense will pick up the slack. That’s the reason why I think we’re where we are from a record standpoint.”
Coleman’s defense also gets the job done with few substitutions. Nineteen defensive players in all competed Saturday for UAPB, with the starters playing most of the snaps.
“We’ve got a work attitude in practice,” Coleman said. “We condition every day. Guys don’t get tired. We’ll sub some of the corners every now and then because of scheme, but other than that, (Robert) Dorsey’s going to be in there. Sean Robison is going to be in there. We rotate three people in the D-line. That’s what we do. That’s how we play.”
Said Harris: “For the most part, we really don’t come out at all. I guess that’s conditioning. We’ve got a lot of young guys coming up behind us, so we don’t want to put them out there too fast and shock them.”