Every week in the Southwestern Athletic Conference is a defensive challenge … for any team.
The league leader in scoring defense, Alabama A&M, has allowed 22.5 points per game. Arkansas-Pine Bluff? It ranks dead last at 39.2.
Then, there’s the total defensive performance. Alabama A&M leads that category, too, yielding 321 total yards per game, including 120.1 rushing. UAPB has given up 462.1 total yards a game for eighth place.
So, the Golden Lions might have felt lucky to come away with a 45-42 win over Grambling State this past Saturday after allowing the Tigers 428 total yards.
“A win is a win, and we’re very glad to have the win,” coach Monte Coleman said after the game.
Oh, by the way …
“We didn’t play very well on defense,” he said. “Forty-two points? That’s way too many points.”
It was a comment that came out the blue, just after Coleman had praised his team for pulling out a win.
But the underlying problem isn’t something that happened overnight. It’s well documented that the Lions have gone to battle with a young defense that’s been hit with injuries and player ineligibilities since preseason camp.
But Saturday, they overcame a little more adversity in withstanding Grambling’s attack. Senior linebacker Jer-ryan Harris, who led the Football Championship Subdivision in tackles per game through the Oct. 26 Mississippi Valley State game, went without a single stop against the Tigers. He left the game in the first quarter with what Coleman called a shin contusion, and his status is day-by-day for this Saturday’s game at Alabama A&M.
Harris is now tied for six nationally with Robert Morris’ Mike Cook at 10.8 tackles per game.
“Having Harris in there is definitely to our advantage,” Coleman said Tuesday. “He’s a ball hawk. Some of the yards we gave up, he might have been able to make stops on. He’s certainly one we look to as a leader.”
Fellow senior Xavier Lofton did make a game-high 14 tackles for UAPB, including a sack and two tackles for losses. Sophomore Antonio Jenkins, who also led the nation earlier in the season, had nine tackles.
Grambling State set an early tempo and scored twice within the first 10 minutes Saturday. All but one of the Tigers’ scoring drives went 59 yards or longer.
The only drive that was shorter was set up by Tyree Hollins’ 33-yard return of a halfback pass interception to the UAPB 25. The Tigers then scored in five plays to take a 25-21 lead late in the first half.
Coleman, who has coordinated UAPB’s defense the past three seasons, is aware Grambling had plenty to do with the Lions’ defensive woes. Quarterback Johnathan Williams led the Tigers in rushing (86 yards on 13 carries) and completed 14 of 18 passes for 275 yards, with a long of 52 yards on one pass.
“I thought they had a great gameplan,” Coleman said of the Tigers. “The quarterback played very well. They’ve got a big bruiser of a running back (referring to Jestin Kelly, who had 30 yards on 10 carries and a touchdown). He ran the ball very well. So Grambling had a lot to do with it.”
Not all of the Tigers’ points came on offense. Dwight Amphy blocked a kick and returned it 85 yards for a touchdown that broke a 24-all tie in the third quarter.
From there, UAPB’s defense did rise to the occasion, holding Grambling to a field goal over the next 18 minutes.
During that span, UAPB came up with a key fourth-quarter stop. Williams was held to 4 yards on two carries and threw an incomplete pass as Grambling was forced three-and-out with 5:07 remaining. UAPB scored an insurance touchdown on its next drive.
The stop protected UAPB’s first fourth-quarter comeback of the season. But Coleman’s trying to keep offenses in check for the entire game.
Statistically, the Lions have struggled doing that.
“We’ll do some soul searching on defense,” Coleman said. “We’ve got to play better. We’re playing with more young guys on defense, in the secondary more so, than in the offense. It’s discouraging to me as a head coach and defensive coach to give up long touchdown passes or long passes for field goals or touchdowns throughout the game. We’ve got to play better on defense, and especially on special teams.”
UAPB (2-7) at Alabama A&M (3-7)
• When: 1 p.m. Saturday
• Where: Louis Crews Stadium, Huntsville, Ala.
• Radio: KUAP-FM 89.7
• SWAC records: UAPB 2-5; Alabama A&M 3-5
• Series: Alabama A&M leads 14-5; last meeting Alabama A&M 14, UAPB 10, at Pine Bluff, on Sept. 8, 2012