PINE BLUFF, Ark. - What started as a joyous celebration for Arkansas-Pine Bluff after its thrilling 22-21 victory Saturday night over Southern soon turned ugly after the final play, with swinging helmets, thrown punches, fans throwing soda bottles and some coaches and players getting hit with pepper spray.
The game had a wild finish preceding the fracas.
First, UAPB took a 22-15 lead on a 14-play, 79-yard drive ending with a Dennis Jenkins touchdown run and two-point conversion pass with 1:30 remaining.
Then, Southern completed a mad drive for the game-tying touchdown. The 76-yard, seven-play drive ended with no time on the clock when quarterback Dray Joseph found Sylvester Nzewke on an 11-yard throwback screen to get the Jaguars within 22-21, pending an extra point.
The Jaguars were set to send the game to overtime with an extra point, but Manuel Canto, attempting his first PAT of the game, hit a line drive into the line of scrimmage. UAPB’s Jarvis Webb blocked the kick, setting off a celebration on the Golden Lions sideline.
Immediately afterward, several Southern players were face-down on the grass near the 3-yard line, visibly heartbroken. On the other end of the field, however, a wild slugfest soon erupted.
“I didn’t see anything. I had pepper spray in my eyes,” UAPB coach Monte Coleman said. “I just saw the ground. That’s it.”
A fight began at 8:54 p.m. It lasted 10 minutes, until 9:04 p.m., when SU coach Stump Mitchell walked off the field with LaMarkius Pettaway, one of the players who was hit with pepper spray.
Dozens of players from both teams were involved in the fight. Before he was hit with pepper spray, Pettaway was seen swinging his helmet.
Coleman said he knew one of his players was hit with a helmet, though he didn’t know who hit his player, be it a UAPB or SU player.
Many players from both teams wound up in the fight, whether to break it up or to participate, just past midfield. UAPB Athletic Director Lonza Hardy said he saw Jefferson County (Ark.) Sheriffs shooting pepper spray into the crowd, trying to disperse the mob.
“I didn’t expect this,” said UAPB offensive coordinator Eric Dooley, a former SU assistant, who was clearly dismayed afterward. “I just wanted a hard-fought battle by both teams, and for them to leave it all on the field.”
Coleman added: “I don’t know how it got started. I really don’t have comments on what happened or who started.”
SU defensive coordinator O’Neill Gilbert, one of several coaches who immediately rushed to break up the fight, was directly hit with the pepper spray; he retreated to a bench, where trainers helped him. Linebacker Jared Detrick, also hit with pepper spray, was seen with emergency responders pressing down on his chest. Moments later, trainers helped Pettaway peel off his jersey and pads and applied an oxygen mask to his face.
Gilbert, Detrick and Pettaway all eventually walked off the field on their own power.
Asked if he knew whether his players were all right, second-year coach Mitchell responded: “Yeah. I mean, other than being heartbroken because of a heartbreaking loss, I think everybody’s OK.”
Mitchell sidestepped most other questions involving the fight, though he commented on Pettaway: “I think he got a little bit of pepper spray, and when you have a little asthma, that probably triggered something there.”
Meanwhile, as the fight raged on, on the east sideline, fans of both teams threw soda and waters bottles onto the field.
Southwestern Athletic Conference spokesman Tom Galbraith, who attended the game, said: “Commissioner (Duer) Sharp is aware that there was an incident. That’s about all I can say.”
As for the game itself, which included 27 penalties and five turnovers, Southern (2-5, 2-3 SWAC) looked poised to pick up a big road victory early on. Instead, the Jaguars lost for the fourth time in five games.
Using two quarterbacks for the sixth time in seven games, Southern took a 9-0 lead in the first half, but fell apart in the third quarter, with turnovers on its first three possessions. UAPB turned those giveaways into a 14-9 lead, and after a fourth-quarter score from Dray Joseph to Lee Doss, the Lions emarked on their 14-play touchdown drive, which proved to be the game-winner.