The University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff won its first SWAC football championship in more than 40 years in record fashion Saturday in Birmingham, Ala.
The Golden Lions, who trailed Jackson State the entire game, fought from behind, tied the scored with a record-setting 95-yard touchdown pass and then beat the Tigers 24-21 to win the first overtime contest in the 13-year history of the SWAC Championship Game. The victory gave the Golden Lions (10-2) the first 10-win season in school history.
“What game,’’ said UAPB coach Monte Coleman,, who won three Super Bowl championships during his 16-year NFL career as a linebacker for the Washington Redskins. “A lot of records were set today. It was a lot of history made. It’s been a great day. UAPB is definitely on the map. When I was playing with the Washington Redskins I was a lot younger. I’m 55 years old now. This is sweet, real sweet. You can’t beat being in the Super Bowl, being winners or losers. But to be able to coach a team like I have right now, I don’t have the words to express the how grateful I am. This definitely ranks among the top sporting event I have been in.’’
It is the second SWAC title for UAPB, which originally joined conference in 1936 before leaving in 1970 and returning 1997. The Golden Lions’ other championship came in 1966 when they shared the title with Grambling, Southern and Texas Southern.
The Golden Lion, champions of the SWAC West and 34-24 winners against Jackson in their Oct. 1 regular season contest, seemed headed for defeat late in the fourth quarter. They trailed 21-14 when they got the ball at their four-yard line with 2:38 left in the game. On second-and-and nine, quarterback Ben Anderson, the game’s Offensive MVP after throwing for 225 yards and a touchdown running for a score, spotted freshman wide receiver Willie Young running free in the Jackson State secondary on a post pattern and unleashed a bomb in his direction.
The ball appeared to be overthrown, but Young – the fastest of the Golden Lions who, according to Coleman runs as fast as he has to – found another gear and hauled it in at his 45-yard line. He then outran Jackson State cornerback Mike Hill to the end zone to tie the score.
“I felt going into the fourth quarter we were going to win the game,’’ Jackson State coach Rick Comegy said. “Lo and behold, he throws what I consider a Hail Mary bomb. The kid tracked that baby down. It was on then.’’
Jackson State go the ball first in overtime but failed to move the ball and ended up attempting 43-yard field goal on fourth-and-11 that was blocked.
UAPB took over needing a field goal to secure the victory, and Coleman put the ball in hands of running back Justin Billings, UAPB’s leading rusher. Billings responded by ripping off a 20-yard run around left end to the five before stepping out of bounds while tip-toe down the sideline. He capped the run by lunging into the end zone and knocking over the pylon for an apparent touchdown. The Golden Lions spilled on to field to celebrate, thinking they had won the game, and were assessed a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that would have moved the ball back to the 20.
However, after SWAC Supervisor of Officials Harold Mitchell interceded and the penalty was waved off. Two plays later, Tyler Strickland booted the winning field goal from 43 yards out.
“We beat a great football team in Jackson State,’’ Coleman said. “I really can’t say too much about the pressure that they put on us. But sometimes when you’re dealing with destiny, you can’t change it. When God’s favor is on you, it’s on you, and his favor has been with this football team the last two years for sure and for a lot of years.’’
The championship for the Golden Lions is the crowning achievement for a program t that 20 years ago staged a flag football game as the centerpiece of the school’s Homecoming celebration because the football team had been hit with the death penalty for rules violations and forced to shutdown. UAPB – found guilty of 41 violations by the NAIA during Archie “Gunslinger’’ Cooley’s tenure – and SMU are the only schools that have served the death penalty. SMU has yet to fully recover.
“I wasn’t in Pine Bluff during that era, so I can’t speak real specifically to it,’’
Coleman said. “But just watching the program grow from playing flag football to the SWAC championship, it’s kind of an obvious escalation from where we were to where we are now. ‘’
Jackson State dominated the team’s regular season contest statistically despite losing, and the Tigers seemed intent on a repeat performance in the rematch. They led 14-0 at the end of the first quarter, after scoring touchdowns on back-to-back possessions following a three-and-out the first time they had the ball.
The Tigers first touchdown came on a 40-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Clayton Moore to wide receive Rico Richardson, the 2012 SWAC Offensive Player of the Year.
Cornerback Qua Cox got the ball back for the Tigers on an interception, and it took them eight plays to drive 79 yards for a score. Running back Rakeem Sims reeled off the final 37 yards of the drive for a touchdown that gave Jackson State a 14-0 lead, and looked as though a rout was in the making.
UAPB’s offense got untracked on its next possession, and the Golden Lions got back into the game when Anderson scored on an eight-yard run on the first play of the second quarter.
Jackson State continued to chew up UAPB’s defense with its running game as the second quarter progressed. The Tigers put together a time consuming 64-yard, 16-play drive, taking 6:44 off the clock in the process and built their lead back to 14 points, 21-7, with 2:22 remaining in the half. The drive ended with Moore scoring on a one-yard run. Only 17 yards in the drive came through the air. UAPB, one of the most penalized teams in the SWAC, helped to keep Jackson State’s offense on the field with a roughing the kicker penalty kicker on a fourth-and-18 punt. Moore scored.
UAPB’s offense continued to go nowhere as the Golden Lions went three-and-out and gave the ball back to Jackson State near midfield at 1:06 before the half. The Tigers, intent on running the Golden Lions back to Arkansas and putting the game out of reach by the half, drove smartly to the UAPB 29 as Moore, playing with an injured throwing shoulder that he hurt two weeks early, completed three consecutive passes.
However, when Moore dropped back to pass for the fourth straight time, linebacker Xavier Lofton hit him from the blind side just before his arm went forward, and he ball popped free. Linebacker Bill Oliver, the game’s Defensive MVP, scooped it up and ran 73 yards for a touchdown.
The SWAC uses instant replay for its championship game to review calls on the field even though its not used during the regular season. A booth review upheld the call, and UAPB had new life, trailing 21-14 at the half.
“We couldn’t run away from them,’’ said Jackson State’s Comegy. “We hoped to run away from them early. We had that opportunity but it just didn’t happen. It was their day.’’
Neither team scored in the third quarter, setting the stage for the dramatic finish.
“We bent but we never broke,’’ Coleman said. “Did they scare us? Absolutely But don’t count us out.’’
NCAA Division II Playoffs
Winston-Salem State 41, West Texas A&M 18: The Rams steamrolled their way into the Division II Championship Game for the first time with an overpowering performance on both sides of the ball in a home victory.
Winston-Salem (14-0), ranked No. 2 in the nation, is just the second HBCU to play for the Division II crown. Central State lost to North Dakota State in the 1983 title game. The Rams will play Valdosta State, the 2004 and 2007 National Champion, for the crown Saturday in Florence, Ala.
Winston-Salem moved the ball at will against West Texas A&M, which allowed opponents 20.7 points. They gained 511 yards total offense, including 262 rushing. Running back Maurice Lewis led the ground attack 118 yards, and he scored touchdowns on runs of nine and 11 yards. Little-used backup running back Bryce Sherman added 73 yards, and he also scored a touchdown.
Quarterback Kameron Smith, making starting for the first time since injuring his right shoulder in the CIAA Championship Game a month ago passed for 232 yard and two touchdowns. He also scored a touchdown on a 23-yard run. Sixteenth-ranked.
West Texas (12-3) entered the contest brimming with confidence having won three straight playoff games on the road and boasting an offense that averaged 40.1 points a game and hadn’t scored fewer than 24 against any of its previous 14 opponents. Winston-Salem held the Buffaloes in check by stymieing their big-play players, running back Khiry Robinson and quarterback Dustin Vaughn. Robinson entered the game with 1,481 rushing yards. He ran for 137 yards and scored on a 13-yard run, but most of his damage was done after the game had been decided. Vaughn had thrown for 4,543 yards before facing the Rams’ defense, which harassed the entire game and held to just 169 yards through the air, about half of his per game average. Vaughn also threw two interceptions.
“The guys were ready to play,” Winston-Salem coach Connell Maynor said.