UNA starts the season slow

UNA Sports Coverage


Leon Ono

The UNA Lions showed support entering the game for the lives lost on 9/11/2001. UNA played UTC on the 20th anniversary of the horrific attacks.

Griffin Traylor, Sports Editor

 UNA starts the football season at 0-2 after facing two nationally ranked opponents.

On Sept. 4, UNA faced off against their first opponent of the year, 15th ranked Southeastern Louisiana. 

The ball was deferred to UNA by SLU as fans anticipated the viewing of this year’s offense. UNA quarterback Jaylen Gipson opened the season with an 11-yard first down pass, foreshadowing his play for the game. The lions were eventually shut down on the drive with a failed fourth down conversion broken up by Alexis Ramos of SLU. 

UNA’s defense started the season on a hot note, putting pressure on SLU quarterback Cole Kelley. K.J. Smith made a remarkable deflection on a play that otherwise would have resulted in a touchdown. UNA stopped the drive in eight plays showing their ability to play defense against nationally ranked opponents. 

After a short possession by North Alabama, SLU came out with sights set on the endzone. The Louisiana lions moved the ball 67-yards in seven plays for a 4-yard pass to Nolan Givan for the first Braly Stadium touchdown of the year.

On the next SLU drive, UNA’s own Terrell Townsend forced a fumble on the SLU 29-yard line. The very next play, Gipson found Corson Swan for a 29-yard touchdown to tie the game in the second quarter at 7-7. 

SLU returned fire after a 17 play 68-yard drive to take the lead. North Alabama’s offense took the field with confidence, tying the game once again with a 40-yard catch by Takairee Kennebrew for a North Alabama touchdown. 

SLU came out of halftime with a vengeance converting a seven-play drive for a touchdown going up 20-14 after a missed extra point. North Alabama scored again on the next drive going up 21-20 as Gipson again found Kennebrew for an outstanding 47-yard catch over a defender falling into the endzone. The UNA offense had a spectacular performance against the nationally ranked Southeastern Louisiana. Coming into the season, UNA was poised to face one of the hardest FCS schedules of the year. The performance by the offense showed that North Alabama can hold their own in a shootout. 

The defensive side of the ball was a separate story, struggling to hold down Kelley and the SLU offense when they caught fire. SLU scored three unanswered touchdowns before the UNA offense could get back on track. 

The UNA offense was partially carried by the play of Kennebrew, who scored his third, and UNA’s final, touchdown of the game with 10:21 remaining. Kennebrew ended the game with 7 receptions for 132-yards and 3 touchdowns averaging 18.9-yards a catch. He was ultimately 1 touchdown away from tying the UNA school record of four in one game. Kennebrew was absent from play last year for the lions after suffering from injury. 

“It was a good debut,” Kennebrew said. “My teammates, they trusted in me to make plays, we got a lot of big things coming and we are only getting better I hope every team is ready because we are coming hard every game.”

The score was held at 42-28 SLU before the Louisiana lions again found the end zone with :44 remaining in the game. 

UNA took the first loss of the season with a final score of 49-28 in favor of Southeastern Louisiana. 

Quarterback Jaylen Gipson for UNA ended the game going 23-46-1 with 350-yards passing and 22-yards rushing. Gipson’s play landed him the number one spot in the Big South Conference Football total offense and passing average per game stats. Gipson said his scrambling during the game forced some missed shots down the field. 

“We’ve got some playmakers on the outside,” Gipson said. “I missed a couple, and I wouldn’t say it’s on my O-line; it’s on me with getting those guys the ball. It was a really good defense just the whole team in general, this does,n’t define our season, we have to just stay positive.”

Coach Chris Willis said one of the reasons Gipson is UNA’s starting quarterback is his scrambling ability enabling him to extend plays. Despite that Willis said the team must be careful with how many times they use Gipson’s legs. 

“I thought our offense did some good things, but we’ve got to get off the field [on defense],” Willis said. “When you play a team that’s ranked you can’t have those mistakes, we just needed that one more big play.”

On the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, UNA faced off against the 18th ranked University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in the second game of the season at Braly Stadium. 

After a tough loss in game one, UNA planned to bounce back against the Mocs for the first stadium win this season. However, Chattanooga’s defense held strong against the lions for a 20-0 shutout. 

The 20-0 loss marked the first time in 113 consecutive games that UNA has been shutout. The defensive prowess of Chattanooga held UNA to only 90 offensive yards. This broke the long-time record set in 1985 against Fort Valley State that UNA has been held under 100 total yards offensively. UNA lost 43-yards of offense on 6 sacks made by the Chattanooga defense. Chattanooga’s Devonnsha Maxwell made for 3.5 of those sacks accounting for 24 total UNA offensive yards lost. 

Gipson said he tried staying in the pocket more than his last game. Despite the sacks, Gipson said the game helped him to trust his pocket more.

“I know I missed two passes last week, if I would’ve just stayed in the pocket I could’ve made the throw,” Gipson said. “I tried to just trust it a little bit more and have a feel for it and they just had a really good D-Line.”

The UNA defense did manage to get two interceptions from K.J. Smith before halftime. Smith started the game off with a diving tiptoe pick on the UNA sideline in the first quarter, following it up with another late in the second that he returned for 8-yards to the UNA 8-yard line. Despite the momentum of Smith’s defensive play, the offense was never able to get it going. Just four plays after the pick, UNA threw their own interception that UTC’s Jerrell Lawson ran back 38-yards for a touchdown, putting UTC up 17-0 at half. 

“You can’t get discouraged,” Smith said. “Of course we would have really liked to capitalize off of the turnovers, but we just have to go in next week and play hard. As a defense we just have to prevent big plays.”

Gipson said he feels like the UNA offense let the defense down. UNA had a chance to score in the first quarter before a questionable call by the referee. On the play, Gipson rushed for 14-yards to the UTC 6-yard line before sliding out of bounds, after a late hit, onto the track outside the grass ripping his helmet off. The ref argued that Gipson’s helmet fell off in play and suspended him for one play after. 

“We had tempo going off the pick,” Gipson said. “That kind of just slows everything down. Blake went in and did a great job; we would’ve had a chance to score there if they wouldn’t have called that.”

Gipson said he believes the coaches called a good game and he just needed a bit more time in the pocket. He took a hit late in the game that smashed his finger between his shoulder pads and the helmet of a Chattanooga player. 

“They said it was a bruised bone,” Gipson said. “Hopefully it’s nothing major, I’m going to get an MRI on it Monday. I’ll be back for next week for sure.”

Coach Willis said his quarterback took a beating that got out of hand late in the game. Willis said the bright side was the defensive play by the lions. UNA hopes to get both sides of the ball on the same page in the next game to get a win. 

Willis said the two records snapped from UNA on Sep. 11 should be placed on the more difficult opponents the lions are now facing. 

“It’s a different world in D1 than it is in D2. It’s not the same animal,” Willis said. “I think people have got to understand that we’re not where that team is at yet, we’re still trying to get there as a D2 moving to D1 transition, at some point it’ll all come our way.”