What a difference three weeks made for the University of North Alabama football team as the Lions steamrolled West Alabama 43-27 in the first round of the 2011 NCAA Division II playoffs. North Alabama had dropped a 31-26 decision in Livingston back on October 27 but turned the tables on the Tigers in the rematch, scoring on its first five offense possessions and rolling to the win.
The Lions, 9-2, advance to meet Delta State next Saturday (Nov. 26) in Cleveland, Miss., in the second round of the playoffs. The Lions also lost to the Statesmen in the regular-season, 30-24 in overtime.
North Alabama scored on all five of its first half offensive possessions and added a punt return for a touchdown to roll to a 36-17 halftime lead. The Tigers would only get within 16 points in the second half as UNA's offense moved up and down the field and finished with 471 total yards.
"Our players did a magnificent job today and they deserve all the credit," said UNA Head Football Coach Terry Bowden. "We played a great West Alabama team and we are proud to be able to come here and get a win. Our guys were physically and mentally ready to play and we are playing some of our best football of the season."
Bowden said the first quarter punt return for a touchdown by Janoris Jenkins was the key play in the game. "When we played down here in the regular season we started slow and could never catch up," he said. "Today we were able to drive the ball on our first possession and then when Janoris returned that punt, it got us rockin'. There was just a buzz for our guys after that."
UNA quarterback Lee Chapple had a stellar day, completing 27-of-33 passes for 320 yards and two touchdowns. Receiver Daniel Almon had a career-high eight catches for 104 yards and Wes Holland led the ground attack with 66 yards and a touchdown.
UNA won the toss, chose to receive, and promptly marched 61 yards in eight plays for a touchdown. Chapple had a 12-yard completion to Tristan Purifoy and a 24-yarder to Daniel Almon on the drive to get the Lions in scoring position. Chris Coffey powered in from one yard out to put UNA on top. Nathan O'Jibway's extra point attempt hit the upright but UNA led 6-0 with 12:11 left in the opening period.
UNA's defense held West Alabama to a three-and-out and Brock Sharp's ensuing punt was returned by the Lions' Janoris Jenkins 92 yards for a touchdown. It was Jenkins third punt return touchdown of the season, tying a UNA single season record set by Anthony Merritt in 2004. The 92-yard return was the longest in school history and the third longest in Gulf South Conference history. Josh Montgomery's extra-point attempt was blocked but UNA led 12-0 at the 10:15 mark of the first period.
West Alabama answered with a 69-yard, 10-play drive to get on the scoreboard. Matthew Willis scored on a three-yard run up the middle and Ryne Smith's PAT closed the gap to 12-7 at 5:48 of the first quarter.
UNA was held to a field goal on its next possession after driving from its own 18 to the West Alabama 20. O'Jibway hit the field goal from 37 yards out and UNA extended its lead to 15-7 at 2:31 of the opening period.
West Alabama again answered with a TD drive that culminated in a two-yard TD run by Willis. Smith's PAT made it 15-14 with 13:51 left in the half.
Chapple led another masterful UNA scoring drive, covering 88 yards in 14 plays. He completed four passes for 48 yards and added a nine-yard run. Coffey scored around left end to cap the drive with an eight-yard run. Josh Montgomery's PAT gave UNA a 22-14 lead with 8:24 remaining in the second quarter.
UNA's defense forced a punt and the Lions drove 82-yards in just seven plays for another touchdown. The key play in the drive was a 52-yard pass from Chapple to Purifoy. A 17-yard catch by Almon put the ball at the West Alabama three and Chapple hit Purifoy for a touchdown. Montgomery's PAT made it 29-14 with 4:14 to go in the half.
The Lions' defense stepped up again and held the Tigers on a fourth-and-one try at their own 39. UNA then quickly drove for another touchdown. Chapple hooked up with Cameron Wade from eight yards out for the score and Montgomery's PAT extended the lead to 36-14 with just 20 seconds left.
West Alabama was able to get in field goal position before the half as Smith nailed a 41-yarder on a untimed down. The Tigers had missed from 46 yards but an offsides penalty on the Lions gave them a second chance and Smith delivered, making it 36-17 at intermission.
The Lions gained 336 yards in the half with 238 yards passing and 98 rushing. Chapple was 18-of-22 with two touchdown passes.
The Tigers opened the second half with another scoring drive but the Lions kept them out of the end zone. UWA drove from its own 33 to the UNA fourth where the Tigers faced a fourth-and-three. Smith kicked a 21-yard field goal to cap the more than seven minute drive. The score closed the gap to 36-20 with 7:45 left in the third quarter.
The West Alabama defense followed with its first stop of the day, forcing a UNA punt after a three-and-out. UNA's defense also held and then the Lions' offense put the ball in the end zone again. Chapple led a nine-play, 75-yard drive that was capped by an eight-yard Wes Holland touchdown run. Montgomery's PAT gave UNA a 43-20 advantage with 32 seconds left in the third quarter.
The Tigers continued to battle and scored on their next possession as Willis scored his third TD of the day on a one-yard run. Smith's PAT made it 43-27 with 12:11 left in the game.
UNA missed another scoring opportunity when O'Jibway was wide on a 30-yard field goal attempt with 5:33 left in the game. The Lions had marched from their own 29 to the Tigers' 13, burning 6:38 off the game clock.
With his 320 yards passing, Chapple moved past 6,000 career yards through the air at 6,135. He also now has 44 career touchdown passes, moving past West Alabama head coach and former UNA quarterback Will Hall into second place in school history.
The win improves UNA's all-time playoff record to 29-13 and extends the Lions' all-time series record against West Alabama to 48-16-1.
It was the 18th rematch game for the Lions, where they have faced the same team in the playoffs that they played during the regular season, and UNA is 12-6 in those games.