Tennessee State survives wild finish against Arkansas-Pine Bluff in Southern Heritage Classic
Facing a new opponent in the Southern Heritage Classic for the first time since 1993, Tennessee State prevailed to snap its three-game losing streak in the event. But the closing minutes Saturday night were tenser than head coach Eddie George anticipated before TSU beat Arkansas-Pine Bluff, 24-14, in Memphis.
The Tigers kept UAPB in check throughout the first half and enjoyed a 17-0 lead entering the fourth quarter. “ I thought we were going to pitch our first shutout,” George said after the game, which drew 32,518 fans to Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium. However, the Golden Lions found their stride and began driving the field, eventually lining up for a 31-yard field goal that would’ve tied the score with 54 seconds left. The kick was blocked and TSU linebacker James Green sprinted down the right sideline for a 92-yard scoop-and-score return.
“We knew we wanted to be resilient coming in,” George said. “It felt like we could’ve closed the door a little earlier. We have to learn to close out defense games more effectively but we answered back when we needed to.”
TSU improved to 1-1 and UAPB fell to 0-2.
“We didn’t get the win but I like the fight in the team,” head coach Alonzo Hampton said after his team replaced Jackson State as TSU’s regular opponent in the SHC. “We fought in the second half and the offense got moving the way I know the offense can move, and we had a chance to win the football game.”
TSU was on the verge of extending its lead early in the fourth quarter, but quarterback Deveon Bryant fumbled while headed into the end zone. Pine Bluff recovered and responded by going 99 yards in seven plays, covering the final three yards on Kevin English’s recovery of a fumbled lateral. It marked the Lions’ second consecutive touchdown drive; halfback Johness Davis, who rushed for a career-high 167 yards, scored from four yards out to put Pine Bluff on the board earlier in the quarter.
“Things kind of got out of hand,” said Green, who tied with Monroe Beard III for team-high tackles (11) and won the SHC’s Most Valuable Player award. “But the mindset was to just put the ball down and keep playing. You have to keep worrying about the next play and not dwell on the mistakes we made.”
Bryant led TSU on offense, completing 14 of 19 passes for 174 yards and gaining 80 yards on the ground. Jalen Rouse rushed for 80 yards while Dayron Johnson caught four passes for 64 yards. “I was just taking what they were giving me,” Bryant said. “I was just reading my keys and delivering strikes and getting the ball to my playmakers.”
After splitting time with Draylen Ellis in the opener against Notre Dame, Bryant took the vast majority of snaps against Pine Bluff, engineering TSU’s own 99-yard scoring drive in the first quarter. “I think he separated himself tonight,” George said. “I hate to rotate quarterbacks because it’s tough for them to get into any type of rhythm. … Moving forward we’re going to continue to go with the hot hand. Having Draylen there is a big plus for us. At some point in time, we’ll have to find a way to utilize Draylen because he’s a talent that just can’t sit back.”
On the other side, Hampton abandoned the dual quarterback approach used against Tulsa, playing Jalen Macon over Mekhi Hagens the entire way against TSU.
“I didn’t tell the media but Mekhi got hurt (in Week 1) and we weren’t going to put him out there if he wasn’t 100%,” Hampton said. But he’s not opposed to playing both, a system he saw succeed while coaching in NFL Europe. “We had a chance to win a World Bowl with Jake Delhomme and Pat Barnes rotating every quarter,” he said. “I’m not saying we’ll rotate them every quarter or every half, but we’re going to use both of those young men because they can move this football team and help us win.”
Pine Bluff will try again on Saturday in its first home game under Hampton, facing Division II Miles College. TSU opens conference play in the Big-South OVC Association with a home game against Gardner-Webb. George is grateful that his third Southern Heritage Classic ended on a positive note.
“It feels good to finally be on the winning side here down here in Memphis,” said George, who was 0-2 in the matchup against Jackson State.
Deron Snyder, from Brooklyn, is an award-winning columnist who lives near D.C. and pledged Alpha at HU-You Know! He’s reaching high, lying low, moving on, pushing off, keeping up, and throwing down. Got it? Get more at blackdoorventures.com/deron.
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