By T Scott Boatright
NEW ORLEANS — Learning to win.
That’s never easy for a young team. It’s probably even harder for a young team with a new coaching staff.
And that showed Saturday afternoon in the 49th annual Bayou Classic at Ceasar’s Superdome, as Grambling State started strong before fading away under the pressure of growing pains and missed opportunities as Southern took control late en route to a 34-17 win over the Tigers.
Grambling’s defense held Southern, which entered the contest averaging 413.0 total yards per game, to only 12 yards in the first quarter.
But the Tigers, who finished at 3-8 overall and 2-6 in the Southwestern Athletic Conference, missed on a 47-yard field goal attempt 8:40 into the opening stanza.
GSU started its third drive of the contest at the 3:22 mark of the first quarter, and methodically marched 80 yards on six plays, with a 40-yard pass from true freshman quarterback Julian Calvez (aided by a 15-yard facemask flag against SU) and an 18-yard run by Chance “Cadillac” Williams helping put the Tigers into the red zone.
Those plays set up a scoring opportunity GSU did take advantage of as Calvez fired a 14-yard scoring strike to Lyndon Rash to put the G-Men on top 7-0 at the 43-second mark of the first quarter.
Grambling looked like it would move out to an even bigger early lead early in the second quarter, driving to the Southern 19-yard before Calvez was sacked and lost the fumble, which was recovered by the Jaguars, who marched 71 yards on six plays with a two-yard touchdown run by Karl Ligon tying the game at 7-7 with 7:08 remaining in the first half.
The G-Men regained the lead as Urban made the most of his second opportunity, booting a 44-yard field goal to put the Tigers on top 10-7 with 3:17 remaining in the first half.
But the Jaguars countered with a seven-play, 76-yard drive culminating with Kendrick Rhymes’ five-yard touchdown run with 25 seconds remaining that gave Southern a 14-10 halftime advantage.
“Obviously we’re disappointed,” GSU first year head coach Hue Jackson said during the postgame press conference. “We had chances in the first half but didn’t make them pay off. My hat’s off to Southern and that coaching staff. They made some huge plays in the second half, and that was the difference in the game.”
Jackson was maybe even more disappointed in hindsight was seeing his Tigers’ start strong again to open the second half, marching 94 yards on seven plays with runs of 22 and 30 yards by true freshman running Floyd Chalk IV setting up a one-yard quarterback sneak by Calvez that put the Tigers back on top 17-14 only 4:57 into the second half.
But the Tigers’ offense failed to get anything going after that, and even worse, after maintaining their lead heading into the final stanza, allowed the Jaguars to score 20 unanswered points in the final stanza to earn the big win.
After the Jaguars retook the lead on a 22-yard touchdown run by Besean McCray with 13:30 left on the clock, Southern added two more scores off turnovers — a 48-fumble recovery by Jordan Carter with 7:42 remaining followed by a 42-yard pick six by Kriston Davis with 2:48 left in the fourth quarter.
Grambling ended the game giving up three turnovers (two fumbles and Davis’ interception) while also being penalized six times for 66 yards.
“Penalties and turnovers,” Jackson said of two of the obstacles his G-Men couldn’t overcome. We’ve had the penalties. We’re used to those. But the turnovers, they were magnified — by twice. Twice the ball fell out of the quarterback’s hands. I haven’t seen that. We’re got to grow from it. We’re not where we want to be I think to a man — every member of the coaching staff and every player. We know this is not where we want to be, and it’s not where we’re going to be. So we respect where we are even though we’re not even close to where we’re going. But we’re got a lot of work to do.
Southern was a good team — a senior-laden team — and they did what they had to do to make sure they had a chance to play next week. I thought we had a good plan. If you go back and really look at it closely, there were some opportunities we had to really hurt them. Maybe finish them in a different game. But we just couldn’t for whatever reason.”
Calvez completed 13-of-27 pass attempts for 152 yards, but faced constant pressure in the second half and sacked seven times in the contest.
Jackson said he didn’t think adjustments by Southern helped the Jaguars pull away late.
Instead, Jackson felt it was a case of his young Tigers imploding at a crucial point in the game.
“I don’t think they saw anything (to adjust to), I think if anything, they just saw a young quarterback,” Jackson said. “I think they smelled blood in the water and just kept coming. I think there were chances to make plays there. And we didn’t. We’ll learn from it. He’ll learn from it.”
Chalk IV was named Grambling’s Player of the Game after rushing eight times for 120 yards while Maurice Washington added 49 yards on six carries for the Tigers while Williams chipped in with 41 yards on six carries for the Tigers, who finished with 201 yards on the ground as compared to 159 for the Jaguars.
That GSU rushing attack helped the Tigers outgain Southern 353-234 in total offensive yardage.
“That’s something that’s been good for us all year,” Jackson said of his Tigers’ rushing attack. “Our problem was not having the ability to gain ‘chunk’ plays in the passing game. That reared its ugly head again today and that’s something we’ve got to work on. We get it.
“But like I said, we’re not anywhere near where we want to be. Where we will be. I just told the team that I’m proud of them and love them all, but the next thing for us is to improve. We’ve got to get better and we’ve got to get better fast.”
Jackson said he was thankful this holiday season for a group of senior football players who never gave up the fight.
“They mean a ton to me, I just told them that,” Jackson said of his seniors. “I’m proud of them. I’m proud of the effort and the way they represented this team. They never wavered a bit, even when it was tough and even bleak. Those guys fought through. They’re the guys who suddenly helped us win two in a row, fighting down the stretch.
“I’m thankful for those guys. But at the same time, I want them to be proud of what they started here. The only way we can give it back to them is to next year be a lot better football team.”
And Jackson said he already has next year’s 50th Bayou Classic on his mind. Southern’s win over the Tigers gave the Jaguars a 25-24 advantage in the series between the schools since the Bayou Classic was born.
“It was 24-24 coming in — they’ve got one up on us now,” Jackson said. “We’ll be preparing for the next one for 365 days until we get the chance to do it again and get it back to 25-25, that’s for sure.”