JACKSON, Miss. — University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff Coach Doc Gamble isn’t big on his team playing the role of a one-hit wonder. So when the Ohio native says his Golden Lions plan on being back in the Southwestern Athletic Conference Championship Game later in the fall, he means it.
For the time being, he’d like for the Golden Lions to take care of business in today’s title trip first.
“The day I was named interim head coach, I told them we would play for championships and we would win championships,” said Gamble, whose Golden Lions will play Alabama A&M today for the SWAC title in Jackson, Miss. “It feels great to represent our community, our university and our organization. It’s building a sense of pride and a certain standard of where we need to be … and be there all the time and not just sometimes.”
“We’re going to sustain this and always give our university and our community something to be proud of.” Happy times have been few and far between for UAPB (4-0) since it captured it’s last SWAC title nine years ago. The Golden Lions have a .247 (19-58) winning percentage and one winning season in the seven prior to this year. Gamble’s words about playing for titles might have even generated a snicker or a side-eyed look from fans during those lean years from 2013-19. But 2021 has been different.
The Golden Lions turned some heads within the SWAC when they beat league heavy-hitters Southern and Grambling State in consecutive weeks before winning against Mississippi Valley State and Prairie View A&M — teams UAPB had lost to in 10 of its previous 14 meetings combined.
The run the Golden Lions have put together was so impressive that they’re ranked 25th in the FCS coaches poll for the first time ever.
“Coach Gamble has done a super job with those guys,” Alabama A&M Coach Connell Maynor said. “He’s got those guys playing hard in all three phases. They’ve got good game plans, they’re well-coached, and they play hard. They’re going to be prepared, and so we’ve got to get prepared.
“It should be a great football game, and we’re looking forward to the challenge.” Today’s battle between the Golden Lions and the 22nd-ranked Bulldogs is one that appeared to be in the cards as the season went along.
Both teams won three games away from their home stadiums this year, and each is trying to win a second outright conference championship. In addition, Gamble and Maynor are both finalists for the Eddie Robinson Award, which is given to the FCS Coach of the Year, and each has been at their respective schools for three years.
Alabama A&M and UAPB also have split their past two meetings, with each winning on the road. The Bulldogs also won the 2006 SWAC title game by beating the Golden Lions 22-13.
There may not be a shortage of points scored. The Bulldogs and Golden Lions both average 35.3 points per game.
“We always say respect all, fear none,” said May-nor, who signed a four-year extension with the school Thursday. “We know we can score, we know [UAPB] can score, and it may be a shootout. It may be 54-52, and the last team with the ball may have a great chance to win the football game.” Quarterback Aqeel Glass, the conference’s player of the year, guides a Bulldog offense that piles up a league-leading 486.7 yards per game. The senior, who’s also a finalist for the Walter Payton Award that’s handed out to the most outstanding player in the FCS, has completed 67 of 113 passes for 1,084 yards with 13 touchdowns and 3 interceptions. He threw for a season-high 440 yards and six touchdowns while adding another score on the ground in a 52-43 victory over Jackson State on April 10.
The 6-5, 215-pounder also has a wealth of targets to throw to, three of whom rank in the top five in the SWAC in receiving. Senior Zabrian Moore and sophomores Odieu Hilare and Abdul-Fatai Ibrahim have combined to catch 39 passes for 744 yards and 10 touchdowns.
“I hope it’s not a long day for us,” Gamble said about his team being able to stop Alabama A&M’s offense. “I think we play good defense, but Mr. Glass is a good football player. And to be honest, you’ll probably be watching two future pro football players, two guys that’ll be able to play at the next level somewhere.
“Both are pretty good.” Gamble alluded to his own starting quarterback, Skyler Perry, who’s second in the conference in passing behind Glass. The junior is 79-of-142 passing for 1,005 yards and 12 touchdowns against 3 interceptions. He, too, has three receivers that rank among the top 10 in the league in seniors Josh Wilkes (19 receptions. 293 yards, 5 TDs), Tyrin Ralph (20-275, 1 TD) and Harry Ballard (18-253 yards, 3 TDs).
Alabama A&M and UAPB are fourth and fifth in the SWAC in total defense, but both units could have their work cut out for them. Gamble, though, is confident in his defense.
“Being a former quarterback, it might sound crazy, but I put the game on our defense,” he said. “I told those guys that it might be an old-school way of thinking that you win championships with defense, but I still believe that. But it’s a big-time challenge this week.
“[Alabama A&M] does a lot of different things, and they’re able to do those things because they’ve got good players. When you’ve got good players, you can do a whole lot. And they’ve got a good triggerman so it’s going to be a big-time challenge.”
At a glance
SWAC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
ARKANSAS-PINE BLUFF VS. ALABAMA A&M
WHEN 2 p.m. Central today
WHERE Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium, Jackson, Miss.
TICKETS Starting at $25 and can be purchased at uapblionsroar.com/swacgame
RADIO KPBA-FM, 99.3, Pine Bluff; KARN-AM, 920, Little Rock; Sirius XM ESPNU Radio, Channel 84 INTERNET uapblionsroar.com/live
RECORDS UAPB 4-0, 4-0 Southwestern Athletic Conference; Alabama A&M 4-0, 3-0
COACHES Doc Gamble (4-0 in first season at UAPB and overall); Connell Maynor (17-10 in third season at Alabama A&M and 82-41 in 11 seasons overall)
SERIES Alabama A&M leads 19-7
LAST MEETING UAPB jumped out to a 31-14 halftime lead before pulling away for a 52-34 victory on Sept. 7, 2019, at Louis Crews Stadium in Huntsville, Ala.
LAST WEEK Both teams had their games canceled because of covid-19.