Alcorn State on upset alert as it heads to Arkansas-Pine Bluff

Alcorn State seeks to continue its winning ways in a Southwestern Athletic Conference football contest.

As they practice each week and prepare for the next opponent, first-year head coach Alonzo Hampton and his Arkansas-Pine Bluff football team can’t allow themselves to look at their games on paper, where rankings, statistics, and predictions rarely favor the Golden Lions.

If they ever needed a reminder, it was delivered during last week’s visit to previously winless Mississippi Valley State.

The Arkansas-Pine Bluff football team has had a tough go in the Southwestern Athletic Conference and hopes to reverse its fortunes Saturday against Alcorn State. (YouTube screengrab via Matthew Loves Ball)

Pine Bluff was soundly defeated, 42-17, returning home without its first Southwestern Athletic Conference victory under Hampton. The Lions fell to 1-5 overall (0-3 in SWAC) and will try again on Saturday, the homecoming game.

But unlike last week, when the opponent was another struggling program with a first-year coach, Pine Bluff must contend with Alcorn State (3-3, 2-1), a title contender coming off a bye after back-to-back league wins.

“We’re very excited about the trip we’re going to take to Arkansas and play against a good football program,” Alcorn head coach Fred McNair told reporters Tuesday.

McNair doesn’t want his players to get ahead of themselves, thinking Pine Bluff and then Mississippi Valley (1-5) should be easy wins before a SWAC West showdown against Southern on Nov. 4. During a recent practice, he offered examples to illustrate the risks of complacency and overconfidence. 

“I emphasized the things that happened in NFL games that day, the San Francisco 49ers losing and the Philadelphia Eagles losing,” he said. “This is a great conference, and you can’t go to sleep on nobody. In this conference you have to be prepared – 0-5, 1-6, it doesn’t matter. You have to play a 60-minute ball game and play real hard in all phases. The record is out the window.”

Pine Bluff may be a heavy underdog, but Hampton senses buy-in and commitment to the team motto, “Restoring the Pride.”

“When you’re restoring something, you gotta get down and dirty,” Hampton said. “You gotta dig a little harder in order to get some of that dirt off – and we’ve got a lot of dirt on us right now. It may look like we’re losing, but I tell you we’re winning. We’re headed in the right direction.”

Their hands will be full against Alcorn, which averages 309 yards passing per conference game. The Braves are led by senior quarterback Aaron Allen, ranked 13th in the Football Championship Series in completion percentage (.688) and 24th in passing efficiency (144.4).  Among his favorite targets is junior wideout Malik Rodgers, ranked 10th nationally in yards per reception (20.38).

Those numbers paint a cloudy picture for Pine Bluff, which yields a SWAC-worst 284 yards passing per league game. Allen passed for 252 yards and three touchdowns in a 25-24 victory against Grambling on Oct. 7. He’s thrown for 927 yards in his last three SWAC contests, with seven touchdowns against two interceptions.

Alcorn State’s football team hopes to keep up its winning ways when it meets Arkansas-Pine Bluff on Saturday. (YouTube screengrab via Alabama State Sports)

“Compared to last year he’s made some giant steps in preparation,” McNair said. “That’s due to (co-offensive coordinator/quarterback coach Jason) Phillips getting him prepared all through the week. His progression has helped because people tend to stack the box to make sure we don’t run the football, so we have to be better at throwing the ball around.”

Alcorn’s opponents have largely succeeded in stopping senior Jarveon Howard, a preseason All-SWAC halfback averaging just 46 yards per game. But Pine Bluff’s defense is only slightly better against the run than the pass, so Howard and Allen could be in line for big days. 

“They’re the best football team we’ve played this year,” Hampton said. “Offensively, they throw the ball well, and (Howard) is tremendous. If they want to give it to him 40 times a game, he’s that good. That quarterback is really, really good. He knows where to go with the ball, and he’s not afraid of pressure.”

Hampton showed his fearlessness in accepting the job at Pine Bluff, which has finished last in the SWAC West seven times since 2014. The coach who vanquished Hampton last week, Kendrick Wade, is in a similar situation, inheriting a Mississippi Valley program that last posted a winning record in 2006. The coaches’ tasks are virtually identical – foster long-term belief in the process (work) with little short-term evidence of progress (wins). The key is focusing on daily standards more than weekly outcomes.

“It’s easy to sell the standard when you haven’t played a game,” Wade told reporters Tuesday after beating Pine Bluff for his first win. “But staying true to being on time, doing what you’re supposed to do, and being where you’re supposed to be – without any wins to show – it’s difficult for some guys to stay the course.

Winning can knock teams off track, too, if they get too comfortable and forget what it takes. Alcorn’s challenge on Saturday is to be mindful while Pine Bluff seeks a big upset. But neither team can spend time studying the matchup on paper.

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