A season that’s steadily going south after a SWAC championship isn’t completely over for Arkansas-Pine Bluff, and according to coach Monte Coleman, that’s the attitude the Golden Lions are taking.
But to have any chance of returning to the conference title game, the Lions likely will have to win their remaining six games. They’ll have to do that just to record a third straight winning regular season.
“I look at this team and as young as we are with the walk-ons and the youth of this team — we played three real good football teams in the SWAC — and without the depth, we played very well, well enough to win the football game,” Coleman said after Jackson State beat UAPB 42-33 Saturday night. “There is some optimism in this loss tonight, as there was against Alabama State and Alcorn State. The thing we’re going to do, we’re not going to fold our tents. We’re going to continue to fight. We’re going to try to make the best of those six games and try to get on a winning streak at home in the next two home games, then go on the road at (Mississippi) Valley, get on another break and pick up and finish those next three ballgames.”
UAPB has been within a touchdown in the final 5 minutes of each conference game so far, but has not been able to finish the deal. The Lions, however, have made strides with younger players filling the roles of veterans who have not yet been cleared to play this season by the NCAA for unspecified reasons.
Coleman said he attributes the lack of finishing games to the Lions’ youth.
“People got to remember, we’ve got a team full of freshmen and people who weren’t expecting to play,” UAPB quarterback Ben Anderson said. “Not to be an excuse or nothing, but I’m proud of the freshmen and the seniors for sticking in there. It’s a tough transition (from last season).”
Coleman noted the progress the Lions have made from the start of the season, when they lost 62-11 to Arkansas State and 58-14 to McNeese State. They have dropped their three conference games by a total of 15 points, leaving them oh, so close to a 3-0 mark in SWAC play.
“I think we are improving every week,” Coleman said. “We are a whole lot better football team than we were, and it’s pretty much the same players as it was against Arkansas State and McNeese State. It’s just a matter of finishing, playing four quarters, playing the whole 60 minutes. When we do that, I think we’ll get our first victory.”
Lions fail to reach keys
Coleman said earlier in the week that getting an edge in possession time and third downs would be keys to victory against Jackson State. UAPB came close in possession time, as J-State owned the ball almost 2 minutes longer, but the Lions were 3 for 11 on third downs (compared to 9 for 14 for the Tigers) and 0 for 2 on fourth downs (the Tigers were 2 for 3).
And keeping the chains moving is what Tigers coach Rick Comegy said was the winning formula for his team this season.
“We’ve got to do a better job on third downs,” Coleman said. “We’ve got to keep the ball moving. In their defense, we made big runs and big passes on second down, so a lot of third downs may not have been in there.”
UAPB also struggled to get the ball to its two leading receivers from last season, Ladarius Eckwood (two catches for 20 yards Saturday) and Dezmond Beverly (one for 21). Beverly has 237 yards on 18 receptions to lead the team this season, but Eckwood has 91 yards on six catches through five games.
“We definitely want to get those guys involved,” Coleman said. “They are a big part of our offense. They have been.”
Smith, Neiheiser in lineup
Freshman running back Jamie Smith made his return to the UAPB lineup after missing a game with a bruised shoulder, but he did not start.
Smith’s first carry went for 10 yards on UAPB’s second drive of the game. He was held to 18 yards on four carries Saturday, but had a 7-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter to give the Golden Lions a 33-28 lead.
Meanwhile, punter Dylan Neiheiser punted twice for an average of 47 yards in his UAPB debut. He had another attempt blocked, and that set up a go-ahead Jackson State touchdown late in the first half.
Neiheiser transferred to UAPB from Malone University in Ohio, but was one of many Lions who weren’t cleared by the NCAA to play when the season began. Kicker Tyler Strickland had handled punting duties before Neiheiser became available.
The game was over when …
J-State’s Tommy Gooden broke a 32-yard touchdown run on third-and-8 with 1 minute remaining, putting the game out of UAPB’s reach.
The game ball goes to…
Gooden for his career-high 214 yards and four touchdowns on 20 carries.
Next for the Lions …
UAPB returns home for its next two games. The Lions will host Texas Southern next Saturday at 6 p.m., then take on Southern for homecoming on Oct. 19.