Because the passing attacks for Alabama A&M and the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff have gotten the bulk of the attention ahead of Saturday’s Southwestern Athletic Conference Championship Game, there hasn’t been much noise made about the teams’ backfields.
Both Alabama A&M Coach Connell Maynard and UAPB Coach Doc Gamble expect that to change once the game kicks off. Just don’t expect either to do anything out of the ordinary or operate outside of their comfort zones, especially with a league title at stake.
“Everybody tries to reinvent the wheel, and that’s the problem,” Maynard said. “You can’t reinvent the wheel. It’s football, it’s X’s and O’s. If they put nine on the line of scrimmage, we’re going to throw the ball. If they put five in the box, we’re going to run the ball.
“It’s not rocket science.” There may not be scientific methodology involved in Maynard’s approach, but it’s safe to say that he, as well as Gamble, would love for their teams to generate offensive balance this weekend, and that means getting as much as they can out of their ground games to complement their air attacks.
Alabama A&M (4-0, 3-0) and UAPB (4-0, 4-0) rank first and third, respectively, in the SWAC in passing on the strength of quarterbacks Aqeel Glass (Alabama A&M) and Skyler Perry (UAPB). However, out of the nine conference teams that played this spring, UAPB is sixth in rushing (127.0) and Alabama A&M is seventh (125.3).
The Golden Lions have used a one-two attack at tailback with freshman Mattias Clark and sophomore Omar Allen Jr. The Bulldogs have relied on junior Gary Quarles as their primary carrier.
Those three are following in the footsteps of two running backs who were all-SWAC selections the previous season.
Alabama A&M’s Jordan Bentley led the league in rushing in 2019 with 1,417 yards and 18 touchdowns, while UAPB’s Taeyler Porter had1,017 yards with 12 touchdowns. Both were first-team picks.
Allen and Clark’s production has been a collaborative effort. Clark, 5-6, 175 pounds, has carried 53 times for 168 yards and 1 touchdown, and Allen, 5-9, 180, has added 146 yards on 40 attempts. The two have teamed to average nearly 3.5 yards per carry but only amass 78.5 yards total between them. Perry has run 36 times for 145 yards and leads the team with 3 touchdown runs.
“As running backs, we have to do more,” Allen said. “Right now, we’re looking like the weak link of the team. The defense is clicking, special teams is clicking, Skyler is clicking, and the receivers are definitely clicking.
“But for us, we haven’t got in that groove. Like Coach tells us, we’re only one play away. It’s not like we don’t have the ability. It’s always just a play away, and that’s how we feel about it.” UAPB has outrushed its foes in three of four games, but a lot of that has to do with a Golden Lions’ run defense that’s No. 1 in the SWAC.
“It’s been OK, but it needs to be better,” Gamble said of his team’s rushing totals. “We’ve hit that fumble-itis bug here the last couple of games, and that hasn’t allowed us to put away some teams that we should have. Our defense has had to go back out and get another stop or two.
“We’ve got two talented dudes, and it’s still by committee. Hopefully they’ll show up this week. Matter of fact, they don’t have a choice. They’ve gotta show up this week.” Quarles isn’t producing at the pace that Bentley did as a senior, either, but Maynor said he loves what his running back has given the team. The 5-6, 165-pound speedster has run 53 times for 249 yards with 2 touchdowns.
“He’s tough as nails,” Maynor said of Bentley, who’s second in the conference in rushing with 83 yards per game. “He’s a three-down back, and he understands the offense. He can block. He can do it all.
“And when we do give him the ball, he keeps his balance, and that’s key. Him being able to run the ball for good yardage, keep the defense off-balance and keep us ahead of the chains. That’s what makes him most important.” Allen added that he doesn’t feel any additional pressure to do what Porter did.
“I just really wanted to go out and play my game, and that’s what hurt me in the beginning,” he said. “I wasn’t playing my game. The Southern game I did OK, but the other games it was like I was trying to play someone else’s role. Taeyler’s one of the greatest players to ever come through here, and it’s been emphasized.
“But the coaches haven’t held that over our heads. We’ve got a who’s next type of mentality, and we’ve been ready for the pressure. In this last game, we just have to go out and do what we already know we’re capable of doing. That’s it.”
SWAC Championship Game
ARKANSAS-PINE BLUFF VS. ALABAMA A&M
WHEN 2 p.m. Central Saturday
WHERE Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium, Jackson, Miss.
RECORDS UAPB 4-0, 4-0 Southwestern Athletic Conference; Alabama A&M 4-0, 3-0
TICKETS Starting at $25, they can be purchased at www.uapblionsroar.com/swacgame
RADIO KPBA-FM, 99.3, Pine Bluff; KARNAM, 920, Little Rock; Sirius XM ESPNU Radio, Channel 84