Alabama A&M coach Anthony Jones can relate to the type of football season Arkansas-Pine Bluff has had.
This, too, has been a season of growing pains for the Bulldogs.
“What we’re doing toward the end of the season is what I hoped we would do at the start of the season,” Jones said. “We’re starting to grow from the mistakes we made. When you grow from that, you give yourself a chance to win ballgames. And that’s what we’ve done.”
But these two programs, which were championship contenders in the SWAC the previous two years, have fallen by the wayside this season — yet they’ve come close to remaining in contention.
For UAPB, there have been three losses by eight points or less, all in conference play. Had each game gone the other way, the Golden Lions would be in the driver’s seat for a second straight Western Division championship.
Close losses have led to Alabama A&M’s demise in the Eastern Division race, like a 28-26 decision at Prairie View A&M, 20-17 overtime loss at Southern and 26-20 home loss last week to Jackson State. But decisive defeats to Mississippi Valley State (28-9) and Alabama State (31-7) have not helped, either.
“It’s been, for both of us, a disappointing season,” UAPB coach Monte Coleman said. “I’m sure he went in with high expectations. I know I went in with high expectations. For reasons, the expectations aren’t being met, and for him, the same thing. What we’re trying to do is make the best out of what we’ve got.”
A game that was expected to be a pivotal moment in the SWAC race for both teams is now simply a battle for pride. But Coleman agrees that the struggles of both the Golden Lions and Bulldogs make for a good battle, which will kick off at 1 p.m. Saturday in Huntsville, Ala.
The Lions have the incentive of winning just their second meeting with the Bulldogs in eight tries. UAPB last beat A&M 21-14 in 2010.
Since, it’s always been a close battle between the two. A&M made a memorable comeback from 20 points down in the fourth quarter to win 28-27 in Huntsville two years ago and was the only team to beat UAPB in the SWAC last season, escaping Pine Bluff with a 14-10 win.
Jones said that doesn’t mean the Bulldogs have had a handle on slowing down UAPB’s offense in recent years.
“Offensively, they’ve always had the potential of being explosive and they’ve been explosive all year,” Jones said. “It’s been a play here, a play there (that’s cost UAPB victories), and now they’re making those plays.”
Jones’ defense, however, is tops in the SWAC in yards allowed (321 per game) and points allowed (22.5). It’s a challenge that the Lions, coming off quarterback Ben Anderson’s five-touchdown effort against Grambling State, are looking forward to.
“They’re playing good ball,” Coleman said. “They’re playing good defense. They have an ability to mix things up. They can blitz you, play zone, it doesn’t matter.”
A&M senior Barrington Scott is among the SWAC’s top five rushing leaders at 80.6 yards per game. Against Jackson State, the Bulldogs’ offense didn’t show signs of a team ranked last in the SWAC in scoring offense (14.0 points per game), racing to a 13-0 lead against eventual Eastern Division champion Jackson State.
“Coach Jones hasn’t deviated a whole lot from what he’s done in years past, but he’s going to keep you guessing,” Coleman said. “He’s got athletes who can score on you real fast, and that’s what they did against Jackson State.”
This is the next-to-last game of the season for the Lions, and they want the upper hand against a team with similar struggles to build their winning streak to three games.
“We started off bad as far as win-loss, but our attitudes haven’t changed,” Coleman said. “I’ve seen a good progression in this team throughout the season. We’re a better team than we were four or five weeks ago. We’re playing pretty much with the same ballplayers. The experience is starting to kick in. The coaching has kicked in.
“Of course, when you win a couple of ballgames, that gives you a little more incentive also, a little more attitude.”