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Golden Lions to battle Tigers in Classic debut

by Tanner Spearman | September 9, 2023 at 3:11 a.m.
UAPB quarterback Jalen Macon takes snaps as the offensive line protects him during a July practice. (Pine Bluff Commercial/I.C. Murrell)

Memphis will be rocking tonight as two regional Historically Black Colleges and Universities foes face off in the 34th annual Southern Heritage Classic.

The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff will face Tennessee State University at Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium at 6 p.m.

Head coach Alonzo Hampton said the Golden Lions are excited to play in the Classic.

"Let's get down there, let's have a good time, but at the end of the day, it's our job to go out there as a football program and win this football game," Hampton said. "Obviously, last week was a tough week for us. It was a tough week for Tennessee State, but they're excited about playing us, and we're excited about playing them."

Both teams are coming off road games against Football Bowl Subdivision competition. UAPB (0-1) fell 42-7 at Tulsa University despite leading after the first quarter.

Tennessee State (0-1) also started well last week but fell 56-3 at No. 13 Notre Dame. After the Fighting Irish scored on their opening possession, TSU drove the length of the field and kicked a field goal. The Irish fumbled the resulting kickoff, setting up the Tigers at the Notre Dame 13-yard line.

Just as UAPB struggled to take advantage of Tulsa's first-quarter turnovers, TSU missed a field goal after the fumble recovery, and Notre Dame pulled away for an easy victory.

Although this will be UAPB's first appearance in the Southern Heritage Classic, TSU has played in every edition of the game. TSU Coach Eddie George, who played nine seasons in the NFL, said he is looking forward to facing UAPB.

"It's going to be another challenge for us to take on a team that's going to play extremely hard," George said. "We're all vying, hungry for a win. This is our opportunity to go down to Memphis and win the Southern Heritage Classic, a game we haven't won since I've been here. So, the incentive is there. The motivation is there."

Both teams have ongoing quarterback battles. Deveon Bryant started for TSU in South Bend, Ind., completing 5 of 12 passes for 43 yards and two interceptions. Last year's starter, Draylen Ellis, completed 3 of 10 passes for 24 yards. George said both will play tonight.

Mekhi Hagens started for UAPB last week, completing 10 of 21 passes for 109 yards. He left the game after an apparent injury, though Hampton said he could have returned if needed and will be ready tonight. He was already planning to play two quarterbacks, so he let Jalen Macon play the rest of the game. The redshirt sophomore went 5-of-5 for 41 yards.

Hampton said UAPB's biggest issue last week was drops by wide receivers and, without them, the Golden Lions could have led by as much as 21-0 in the first quarter. If UAPB can limit drops, he said this offense will do much better.

"I think our scheme is so good, and we have good enough players that we can move the ball on anybody," Hampton said. "We had 69 plays, 252 yards. Mekhi, he played a really good game. Jalen came in, did a really good job. Our receivers have to catch the ball. Period."

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