Earlier in the season, giving up sacks was a big problem for Arkansas-Pine Bluff.
It was only 3 ½ weeks ago when Alabama State stopped UAPB quarterback Ben Anderson in the backfield on three consecutive plays during a potential game-winning drive. Anderson was sacked four times that day, and UAPB — through three games — had already given up 13, matching its total from all of the 2012 season.
But the following two opponents, Alcorn State and Jackson State, haven’t penetrated through the Golden Lions’ offensive line so easily. Alcorn State stopped Anderson for a loss once and Jackson State got to him twice, but not during the first 57 minutes, 55 seconds of the Tigers’ 42-33 win this past Saturday in Jackson, Miss.
Not only has the Lions’ quarterback protection improved, but the line has opened up greater holes for its backs. The line has allowed the Lions to produce more than 450 yards of offense in each of its three conference games so far.
That would rank UAPB among the top three total offense leaders in the SWAC if their struggles at Arkansas State (173 total yards) and McNeese State (216) weren’t factored. Instead, the Lions rank sixth with a 360.4-yard per game average, but they’ve proven to be a force in an offense-happy league.
And they all but picked apart the SWAC’s second-best defensive unit, which allowed 289.2 ypg before Saturday.
“Showing what we did to (our first three conference opponents), how we competed — we really should have won those games — it just shows the rest of this season, there’s no excuses,” left guard Kenny Eagle said. “We should be doing that to everybody.”
But the Lions’ offensive line, which includes only seven active players (not counting tight ends), has yet to factor in a victory this season. Still, their position coach sees the positives in their play.
“I attribute that to the young guys learning, picking up on their technique,” Damon Nivens said. “We had to make some shifts in fronts due to certain guys not being here due to compliance (issues), but it’s guys who want to work hard that are catching on. I can’t say they weren’t catching on in the beginning, but as they worked together more and more as an offensive line, they got that cohesiveness and they learned how to block faster and quicker.”
Nivens has relied on seniors Eagle and Keathric Brown, junior Me’kale Carter, sophomore Toddra Pamplin and redshirt freshman Trevon Reagan to pace the offensive line. True freshmen Ladarius Golden and Jared Wafer are the group’s only reserves.
Eagle, a left guard, credits the O-line’s determination and toughness with its improvements.
“I’d put ‘tough’ in there,” he said. “It is tough not having somebody behind you.”
If there is a point in the game where the O-line has struggled the most recently, it’s been down the stretch.
Trailing 35-33, UAPB recovered a Jackson State fumble at its own 22 with 4:46 left. Freshman Jeremiah Young ran twice for 17 yards to give the Lions a first down, but two plays later the Lions were called for holding to make it second-and-18. Anderson threw a 15-yard pass to Isiah Ferguson and tossed an incompletion toward tight end C.J. Branch to set up fourth-and-3. But outside linebacker Ariane McCree penetrated through the line and brought Anderson down for a 14-yard loss with 1:58 left.
Nivens said the crucial sack wasn’t because his depleted line was worn down.
“We’re in shape from right tackle to left tackle,” he said. “That should be no problem. It’s just, more or less, finishing and working your technique.”
UAPB has taken on two of the top three defensive teams in the SWAC (Alcorn State ranks third), which may only help the Lions as the season goes along. But to salvage a third straight winning regular season, they’ll have to win their remaining six games.
Being able to finish likely will remain crucial.
“You just correct it by watching film and covering your mistakes, making sure you don’t make them again,” Nivens said. “For the most part, it’s just young guys growing up and knowing how to finish.”