HOUSTON — First, the rain came down pretty hard and the game was paused for nearly an hour. Then the clouds started to break up, and the sun was still shining on Arkansas-Pine Bluff’s hopes of clinching a spot in the SWAC championship game early.
UAPB, which had the ball not even 10 minutes in the first half, went on to post 476 total yards and score twice on defense Saturday in a 49-3 victory over Texas Southern in the Tigers’ homecoming game. Coupled with Alabama State’s win down the road at Prairie View A&M, UAPB (7-2, 6-1 SWAC) wrapped up its second-ever Western Division championship and first since 2006.
“Our number-one goal was to win the football game,” UAPB coach Monte Coleman said. “We got our kids ready to play, and they played a good football game. They were able to put the points on the board and play the defense that we did, and we’re blessed to win the football game.”
That means the Golden Lions will play in the Dec. 8 conference championship game in Birmingham, Ala., against the Eastern Division champion.
“This has been a great senior season, and I just want to keep the success going,” said linebacker Bill Ross, who led UAPB with 12 tackles and returned an interception 39 yards for a touchdown.
UAPB used big defensive stops and quick scoring as a springboard to success in the first half. The Lions’ first big break came after the 55-minute weather delay at the 11:39 mark of the first quarter.
Heavy rain and two lightning strikes came down at BBVA Compass Stadium, with the lightning forcing the delay. The Lions forced a punt two plays after the game resumed and struck first.
“We had been here before,” Coleman said. “We’ve had breaks like this where we had to go back out. We can’t miss a beat and we have to play the way that we know how to play. For us to go back when they had a drive going, stop them and then the offense took over, that was big for us.”
Ladarius Eckwood, the Lions’ leading receiver, took a zip pass from Ben Anderson and sprinted through traffic 74 yards for a touchdown to cap a four-play drive. It was the first of two scores for the junior from Springdale, who also scored the last touchdown of the game early in the fourth quarter and led all receivers with 107 yards on four receptions.
Anderson was 12 for 21 for 265 yards and four touchdowns with an interception, helping his offense bounce back nicely from a struggle with Mississippi Valley State’s vaunted defense (although it was a 10-0 win).
“Scoring 10 points, I feel like they shut me down personally,” Anderson said. “It wasn’t a good feeling so I wanted to come back and do a lot better. The passing game was just there (Saturday). We just ran with it, and receivers caught passes.”
The Tigers’ next drive resulted in their only points of the game. They went 62 yards to the UAPB 15 before back-to-back sacks by Brandon Thurmond and Jer-ryan Harris forced them to settle for a 33-yard Robert Hersh field goal.
UAPB finished with six sacks on the day, with Texas Southern starter Rudolph Johnson going down five times. Thurmond, the nation’s sack leader, had three sacks to pace UAPB’s defense and improve his season count to 13.5.
“He’s a beast out there,” Ross said. “He’s doing everything he can. I think the thing that’s helping us is that they’re not able to double-team him as much as they would like to because you do have other defensive linemen going against the passer. It’s not just Brandon Thurmond putting pressure. He’s getting a lot of sacks, but we have a lot of other D-linemen who are putting pressure.”
Following a Texas Southern punt early in the second period, UAPB freshman Willie Young made an impressive reception, snatching a 50-50 ball from defensive back Derricus Purdy and going all the way for a 68-yard touchdown to make it 14-3. It was Young’s first reception of the season.
The Lions appeared to run into trouble when Texas Southern’s Le’Tevin Wilcox picked off a pass that bounced off receiver Cody Swain’s hands and returned it 33 yards to the UAPB 1. But they caught another break defensively when Xavier Lofton sacked Johnson back at the 15 and Hersh pushed a 32-yard field goal attempt wide right.
With 9 seconds before halftime, Dezmond Beverly got into the scoring act with a 4-yard reception to make it 21-3 at halftime. That closed an 11-play, 93-yard drive.
The Lions’ offensive rhythm carried into the second half. They scored on a 75-yard march to start the half, as Thomas Winters hauled in an 8-yard catch for his first TD of the season.
The next two Texas Southern series ended in pick-sixes. Ross made his second of the season off backup Justice Jones, going 39 yards to push the lead up to 35-3, and Ryan Shaw took one back 45 yards for the next score.
The Tigers went 10-for-20 passing for 91 yards with three quarterbacks. Johnson was 8 for 14 for 75 yards.