Today's regular-season finale against winless Texas Southern won't matter much to the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff in the Southwestern Athletic Conference standings, but that doesn't diminish the game's importance according to Coach Cedric Thomas.
"For us, this is our championship game," he said. "You're talking about a team that hasn't had a winning season since 2012, so we're treating it as if it's our bowl game. It's everything to us."
The Golden Lions (5-5, 2-4) have a chance to put six years of mediocrity behind them when they host the Tigers at 3 p.m. at Simmons Bank Field. The last time UAPB was above .500 was seven seasons ago when the Golden Lions finished 10-2, captured the SWAC title and won the black college football national championship as named by American Sports Wire.
The Golden Lions won't be able to duplicate any of those feats this year, but defeating their divisional rivals would help carve out a spot among the league's elite.
"We're in the process of doing it," Thomas said of rebuilding, "and there's no doubt in my mind that we will do it. I've got the format and the foundation for it. It's just gonna take a little time, but we're not far off."
Closing out the year with a victory would give UAPB just its fourth winning season in the past 15 years. With the loss of only nine seniors, the Golden Lions will return their nucleus in 2020. The last thing Thomas wants is for his team to overlook a Texas Southern squad in the middle of one of its worst ruts in recent memory.
Under first-year Coach Clarence McKinney, the Tigers (0-10, 0-6) have lost 13 games in a row. Overall, Texas Southern has dropped 19 of its last 20 games and are 4-28 since 2017. Through it all, McKinney said he feels good about the direction of the team.
"No matter how we've played or how much adversity we've faced, they've shown a tremendous amount of heart," he said. "They've taken these challenges head on, and no matter what the scores have been, they've competed to the very last whistle. We've given ourselves a chance to win, but we just didn't have some things go our way.
"We're a play or two away from being where we want to be."
The Tigers, whose last victory came against Mississippi Valley State on Oct. 27, 2018, have had several close calls this season. Four of Texas Southern's losses have been by seven points or less. Self-inflicted mistakes also have plagued the Tigers, who are the second-most penalized team in the SWAC and have the worst turnover margin in the Football Championship Subdivision.
Texas Southern has managed to stay in a number of games because of an offense that averages 429.6 yards per game, which ranks fourth in the league. Quarterback DeAndre Johnson is the SWAC's fifth-rated passer, and wide receiver Donnie Corley is 16th in the FCS in receiving yards with 970.
"[Texas Southern] is an explosive football team," Thomas said. "Their record doesn't indicate what that football represents. The big-time wideout on the edge can make big-time catches, the quarterback can make all the reads, all the throws, has a live arm. ... the offensive line has been steady up front, giving him time to throw the football."
Defense has been Texas Southern's Achilles' heel. The Tigers are last in the FCS in yards allowed (554.8) and next to last in defensive scoring (45.5). Five teams have scored at least 44 points against the Tigers, with Louisiana-Lafayette piling up 77 in a 71-point thrashing on Sept. 14.
McKinney, who spent two seasons as the running backs coach for Kevin Sumlin at the University of Arizona before he was hired at Texas Southern, said his team has been battling injuries on defense so much so that he's had to move some of his offensive players to that side. McKinney said the defense has to be able to slow UAPB to have a shot to end the season on a positive note.
"This is a very talented Pine Bluff team," he explained.
"They can score, and score in a hurry. They've got a couple of quarterbacks and running backs that are really good, but their receiving corps is second to none. We're going to have our work cut out for us."
Thomas mentioned that the struggles and injuries the Tigers have dealt with reminded him of what he went through during his first season at UAPB.
"You see all the injuries early, but they've come back and have been very sound," he said.
"They're playing well but just haven't put it together. I hope this is one more Saturday that they don't put it together so we can get what we want.
UAPB VS. TEXAS SOUTHERN
WHEN 3 p.m.
WHERE Simmons Bank Field, Pine Bluff
RECORDS UAPB (5-5, 2-4 Southwestern Athletic Conference); Texas Southern (0-10, 0-6)
RADIO UAPB Sports Network: KOKY-FM, 102.1, KPBA-FM, 99.3, KARN-AM, 920, in Little Rock
COACHES Cedric Thomas (7-14 in second season at UAPB and overall); Clarence McKinney (0-10 in first season at Texas Southern and overall)
SERIES Texas Southern leads 25-18
LAST SEASON UAPB stopped Texas Southern on three consecutive plays inside the 3-yard line during the final 42 seconds to pull out a 15-10 victory.
LAST WEEK Both teams had open dates.
NOTEWORTHY The SWAC will move to an eight-game league schedule next season. … The last time Texas Southern finished a year without a victory was in 2007 when the Tigers went 0-11. … UAPB running back Taeyler Porter rushed for 65 yards in a loss to Prairie View A&M two weeks ago and needs 170 yards in his final college game to finish with 1,000 yards rushing in back-to-back seasons. Porter, who missed a game earlier this year because of injury, has 2,040 yards and 19 touchdowns in 19 career games with the Golden Lions. “He’s everything to us, the face of our program,” UAPB Coach Cedric Thomas said. “He showed up, sight unseen, but he trusted us as coaches. He’s tough, hard-nosed and indicative of what we’re trying to establish as we continue to build our culture. We’re really going to miss him, but we want to send him out with a bang.” A total of nine Golden Lion seniors and student assistant coach Samuel Beavers will be honored during a pregame ceremony. … The Tigers have won the last three times they’ve come to Arkansas to face UAPB, including a 24-10 victory in 2017 at Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium. … Junior Thurman Morbley has been Texas Southern’s “iron man” all season, and he rarely came off the field in the Tigers’ most recent game against Alabama State. In the team’s 27-21 loss on Nov. 9, Morbley caught one pass for 11 yards, handled kickoff and punt return duties and recorded three solo tackles on defense. … UAPB junior wide receiver Harry Ballard ranks fourth in the conference in receptions (49), receiving yards (842) and touchdowns (9). Senior defensive end Jalen Steward leads the league in tackles for loss with 15.5, and junior Shawn Steele ranks second in passes defended with 16. … The Tigers have outscored the Golden Lions 871-809 during their 43 all-time meetings. … Texas Southern’s Dominic Franklin, a sophomore running back, has a team-leading 532 yards on the ground, while junior linebacker Patrick Howell has registered 59 tackles.
— Erick Taylor
Sports on 11/23/2019
Print Headline: Golden Lions looking for springboard victory