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The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff may be off this week, but Coach Cedric Thomas isn't treating it as such.

The Golden Lions played perhaps their best game under Thomas when they crushed Mississippi Valley State 38-6 on Saturday to notch their fifth victory of the season, a notable milestone considering the team won just five games total from 2016-2018. UAPB returns to the field Oct. 26, when it hosts perennial power Grambling State at 3 p.m. Nonetheless, preparation for the Tigers started the day after the Golden Lions beat the Delta Devils.

"We're getting prepared to make sure we're giving ourselves all the advantages," Thomas said. "[Grambling State] is always the staple of the conference and that's a good football team. They may not look like Grambling teams of old schematically, but they are still who they are.

"As long as that 'G' is on that helmet, they play up to that level."

UAPB has taken its game up a notch as well, and because of it, is enjoying a bounce-back season thanks largely because of its offensive capabilities. The Golden Lions rank 22nd in total offense and 25th in scoring offense in the FCS. The only other team from the SWAC that sits in the top 25 of both of those categories is Western Division rival Prairie View A&M. But while UAPB's offense is receiving the bulk of the credit for the teams' resurgence, the Golden Lions' defense is quietly putting together a feel-good story itself.

A year ago, UAPB statistically had the worst defense in the FCS. The Golden Lions allowed 558 yards, gave up an average of 43 points per game and were slated near the bottom of the pack in several other defensive categories.

However, an extra year in Thomas' system seemingly is paying off.

"Honestly, the scout team has been a big part of it," defensive back Shawn Steele said. "They give us good looks in practice. We always talk about staying over our cuts and playing hard. We've done that this year.

"The hunger we have now has been the main thing, though. We're hungrier."

The Golden Lions, who allow an average of 383.6 yards and 27.7 points per contest, are fourth in the SWAC in total defense and have nine interceptions, which is tied for fifth in the FCS. UAPB is also tied for sixth in total forced turnovers (16) and sits 27th in tackles for losses.

Steele has been one of the leaders of the defense's revival. The 5-11, 180-pound junior from New Orleans leads the conference in interceptions (3), pass breakups (11) and passes defended (14). He has four takeaways in the past three games.

The numbers say UAPB's defense has improved this season, but according to Mississippi Valley State Coach Vincent Dancy, the Golden Lions pass the eye test as well.

"They did a good job of attacking us," he said. "[UAPB] is a very good team. We just couldn't put any points on the board."

Aside from an early scoring drive, the Delta Devils weren't able to do much. Mississippi Valley punted the ball five times, turned the ball over on downs three times and committed three turnovers.

"I can't speak enough about Coach [Torenzo] Quinn, Coach [Deion] Roberson and Coach [Jonathan] Bradley," Thomas said about his defensive coaches. "Those guys put a great game plan together. They did a good job of settling the kids down and getting them back to Monday's, Tuesday's and Wednesday's practices.

"They threw some wrinkles out there that they'd work on during the week. I thought once they did that and got back to keys and reads, we really got a chance to play our brand of football defensively."

No scaredy-cats

The final four games of the regular season are about as pivotal as it'll get for UAPB, but Coach Cedric Thomas said his team isn't about to flinch.

The Golden Lions have won two games in a row with a home game against Grambling State on Oct. 26, followed by consecutive road trips to Jackson State (Nov. 2) and Prairie View A&M (Nov. 9). All three beat UAPB last season, with Grambling State winning in overtime and Jackson State surviving after blocking a potential game-tying field goal in the final seconds. Thomas noted his team's mindset has changed, and they won't be fazed by magnitude of the games.

"We don't get to where we are right now if that's not the thought process," he said. "All of the close games we lost last year. ... We've gotten to where we are because of those games. My kids are good enough, and they believe that they are good enough.

"They've got to understand that regardless of who we play on each Saturday, we've got to be prepared. I don't think there's anybody in the league that's going to scare us or have the psychological edge. They believe now."

UAPB is currently 2-1 in the West and are a half game behind Southern (2-0). Prairie View A&M is third at 2-2 while Grambling State and Texas Southern are both 0-2. Grambling State beat East Division foes Jackson State and Alabama A&M in back-to-back weeks, but those games were deemed nonconference contests in order to keep the Tigers at the league-maximum seven-game schedule.

Bangs and bruises

The injury bug hasn't bitten UAPB like it did in 2018, but the bye week will give a pair of key players an opportunity to heal from nagging injuries.

"For the most part we're OK, but we're still waiting to get KeShawn Williams back to 100 percent, and Jeremy Brown was limited at the tight end position, which has really been a great asset to us," UAPB Coach Cedric Thomas said. "We're just like everybody in the country in that we've got some bangs and bruises. This time will be good to get those guys back as we go down this stretch.

"But overall, it's about what's expected when you're playing this physical and contact sport."

Williams, who has missed the past three games, has carried 49 times for 349 yards with 3 touchdowns and caught 6 passes for 55 yards. He's also returned 10 kickoffs for 219 yards, including a long of 40. Brown, who was slowed last week, has 14 catches for 228 yards and 3 scores.

Shawn Steele

Sports on 10/18/2019

Print Headline: Defense steps up from 2018

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