By T. SCOTT BOATRIGHT, Lincoln Parish Journal
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 the Caesars Superdome. Grambling State started strong before fading away under the pressure of growing pains and missed opportunities, and Southern took control late in a 34-17 win over the Tigers.
The outcome lifted Southern into the SWAC Championship Game next Saturday against undefeated Jackson State. The Jaguars (7-4 overall, 5-3 in the SWAC) handed former Grambling player and offensive coordinator Eric Dooley a win in his first Bayou Classic as Southern’s head coach.
It wasn’t easy. Grambling’s defense held Southern, which entered the contest averaging 413 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, faltered when Garrett Urban – 5-for-5, including the game-winner, in last year’s Bayou Classic — 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 face mask 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 cash in. Calvez fired a four-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 line before Calvez was sacked and lost a fumble. Southern 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 Tigers 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 on 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, seeing his Tigers waste a strong start opening the second half. Grambling marched 94 yards on seven plays with runs of 22 and 30 yards by true freshman running back 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. Even worse, after maintaining their lead heading into the final stanza, the G-Men 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 to go.
Grambling committed 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.
“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 was 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 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.”
Contact Scott at firstname.lastname@example.org