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The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff took a shot to the chin last week from Grambling State, but the Golden Lions aren't down and certainly not out of the race for the Southwestern Athletic Conference title.

"Just came up one play short," UAPB Coach Cedric Thomas said of his team's 39-33 loss to the Tigers. "But I'm really excited about my kids and the way they played. They were fighting against one of the better teams in this conference.

"Now, we've got to pick ourselves up. I expect them to get their butts up off the turf and go to work. There's still a lot of football left to be played."

Both divisions are still up for grabs, and the Golden Lions are among those jockeying for position.

Defending league champion Alcorn State did UAPB a favor by beating Southern 27-13 on Saturday. That loss cost the Golden Lions a chance to pull into a tie with the Jaguars for first place in the West. Southern does hold the tiebreaker between the two because it beat UAPB in Pine Bluff on Sept. 28, but a Golden Lions' victory over Grambling State would've increased the pressure on the Jaguars, who still have three tough conference games left.

UAPB, however, squandered its opportunity after a deflected pass resulted in a game-sealing interception in the closing moments. Thomas acknowledged that Saturday's game at Jackson State is by far the biggest of the season for his team if they want to keep their dreams of playing for a SWAC championship alive.

"Kudos to Grambling State and Coach [Broderick] Fobbs," Thomas said. "They've got a championship pedigree for a reason. But for us, Jackson State is our championship game now.

"We've got to make sure we come out prepared for a really good football team."

Although the Golden Lions don't control their own fate as it pertains to reaching the conference title game, Thomas pointed out that it's been a while since the program has been in the position that they're currently in.

"This is the first time that anybody in the building has been 5-3 in a long time around here," he explained. "None of the seniors have been 5-3 going down the stretch and knowing that you have a chance. For us to be going down this stretch and having a chance says a lot about this coaching staff and these kids who believe in what we're saying.

"Just to be relevant says a lot right now."

Trust the process

One of the first things on Cedric Thomas' to-do list when he was hired as UAPB's coach nearly two years ago was to change the culture and mentality of a struggling football program that had seemingly lost its way. With the way the Golden Lions have played this season, he feels that box has been checked off. Thomas said the team now has to do what's needed to take that next step to become one of the upper echelon teams in the SWAC.

"To watch the kids stay poised and actually believe that they were going to beat Grambling says a lot about the culture. ... It has changed," Thomas said. "I've been a part of the resurrection of programs and sometimes, it just doesn't fall your way. It's some intricacy things inside of the game that you have to take care of when you talk about being in the elite with the Southerns, the Alcorns, the Gramblings.

"You've got to make the game-winning plays when you have a chance, and those teams have consistently done it. They're where we'd like to be. We don't have to keep putting emphasis on changing the culture now because that's understood."

Tigers on a roll

Jackson State is tied for second place with Alabama A&M with 2-1 marks in the East Division and sits 11/2 games behind Alcorn State (4-0). Jackson State will play at Alabama A&M next week and host Southern on Nov. 16 before facing the first-place Braves on Nov. 23 in their regular-season finale.

The Tigers started the season 1-5, including a 25-22 loss to NCAA Division II Kentucky State, but they've since won their past two games, the most impressive of which being a 38-35, double-overtime triumph over Prairie View A&M on Oct. 24.

"[Jackson State] is a good, physical football team," UAPB Coach Cedric Thomas said. "When you look at their journey, here's a team that lost to a Division II school, and they could've hung it up. They lost some other close games early, but they've bounced back.

"That says a lot about a team's character. [Coach John Hendrick] has done a great job over there."

Hendrick was equally complimentary of Thomas.

"He's done a heckuva job with that program," he explained. "They do a great job offensively, and they're going to be a handful for us to stop. Defensively, they're playing really solid, sound football.

"We've got to be prepared and have to be solid in all three phases of the game."

On the road again

UAPB enjoyed a rare four-game stretch of home games, but the Golden Lions venture back out on the road this weekend. According to UAPB Coach Cedric Thomas, that may not be a bad thing.

"We've been a home for a while now, but now we'll get a chance to kind of get isolated and locked in on a Jackson State team that's hot right now," he said. "We kind of like being on the road. It gets us away from our setup.

"We don't have the luxury of putting the team in hotels over the weekend [in Pine Bluff], so this is a way for us to get away from the distractions. We're excited about getting on the road."

The Golden Lions haven't played a game away from Simmons Bank Field since Sept. 21 when they beat Tennessee State 37-31 in Nashville. The last time UAPB traveled to Jackson, Miss., it walked away with a 34-27 overtime victory on Sept. 23, 2017.

Sports on 11/01/2019

Print Headline: Lions still in the mix in SWAC

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