Two groups of talented running backs will face off tonight on national television.
The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff opens Southwestern Athletic Conference play at Alabama A&M at 6:30 p.m. on ESPNU in a matchup of two of the SWAC's top rushers.
UAPB redshirt freshman Johness Davis leads the SWAC with 94.3 rushing yards per game. He is second in total yards with 283 behind Jackson State's Irv Mulligan, who has played an extra game. True freshman B.J. Curry led the Golden Lions last week in their 21-20 win against Miles College with 102 yards and a touchdown.
UAPB (1-2) finished with 209 rushing yards last week and has exceeded 100 in each game. Coach Alonzo Hampton said UAPB can run the ball, but winning games will require the right mindset.
"I want a tough-minded football team, and I think our kids are starting to understand what I say, what tough-minded means," Hampton said. "We're playing a tough-minded football team this week. They do a good job of running the football. They've got tremendous athletes on the edges, and then defense, they play hard."
Alabama A&M sophomore Ryan Morrow is third in both rushing categories behind Davis and Mulligan. Redshirt sophomore Donovan Eaglin led the Bulldogs in their 20-10 loss to Southern last week.
Hampton said his team must stop Morrow and Eaglin.
"I think Alabama A&M has the best two running backs in this league," Hampton said. "Obviously, there's a lot of good running backs, but they got a couple guys that can make you miss in the hole, and they can take it the distance. They got big o-linemen."
Alabama A&M (1-2, 0-1 SWAC) rushed for 135 yards in its opener at Vanderbilt, then ran for 239 at home against Lane College. The Bulldogs finished with minus-17 yards last week at Southern in an uncharacteristic performance. Bulldogs Coach Connell Maynor said not getting enough push from the offensive line had a big impact on the game.
"You want to be able to run the ball," Maynor said. "You want to be able to pass protect. You want to be able to stay balanced to keep them off balance. If they make you one-dimensional, now you behind the 8-ball."
Both teams have leaned on defense, forcing six turnovers in their opening three games. UAPB forced two fumbles in the fourth quarter last week and one in the fourth quarter against Tennessee State. Alabama A&M held Southern to 62 rushing yards and forced a goal line fumble right before halftime.
Although UAPB has had some success running the ball, the Golden Lions are still looking for consistent scoring. They scored 28 points between their final four drives against Tennessee State and their first two against Miles College, but they have otherwise struggled to finish.
Hampton said UAPB must do better on the road tonight.
"We got our work cut out, but our offensive staff, they know we haven't played well the first three games, and they're in there working right now," Hampton said. "We gotta do a better job of sustaining drives. We were 1-of-14 on third down. That's unacceptable, so we gotta be better all around on offense. We will be this week, and so we're looking forward to the matchup."