Grambling doesn’t have the gaudy statistics one might expect from a team playing for a championship.
The Tigers are tied with Southern for the Southwestern Athletic Conference West Division lead heading into the teams’ showdown in the regular-season finale in the Bayou Classic. But they’re in the middle of the conference in most of the primary statistical categories.
They’re fourth in scoring and fifth in scoring defense; eighth in rushing and fourth in rushing defense; fourth in passing and 10th in pass defense; sixth in total offense and eighth in total defense.
Those aren’t eye-popping rankings, but being pretty good at most everything often trumps trying to balance being really good in some areas and really bad in others.
A closer look at the stats reveals a pattern that has been vital to Grambling’s success this season.
Its fourth-ranked defense against the run has worked in concert with its second-ranked defense on third downs and league-best pass rush to become a key to its success.
The Tigers have been able to contain opponents’ running games. Their 164.4 yards allowed per game are fourth-best, but their 3.8 yards per rush are tied for second-best.
That means they tend to knock opposing offenses off schedule and put them in obvious passing situations. That has helped Grambling generate 45 sacks and allow opponents to convert just 32.9 percent of third downs into first downs.
“They’re very fast and very athletic, and they’re very aggressive and very talented,” Southern offensive coordinator Chad Germany said of the Tigers’ pass rush. “I think it’s a combination of the speed and quickness and the scheme. I think they have a pretty good scheme. It’s a new scheme that’s different from all the other teams in the SWAC. Teams don’t really have a lot of time to prepare for it, so I think they put you on edge a lot with the things they do on defense.”
The Jaguars have two weeks to prepare for the Tigers’ 3-3-5 scheme, which Germany said makes it difficult for offensive linemen to identify which player to block — which can create big plays such as sacks.
“They pressure a whole lot,” he said. “They send five, six guys at you. I think their goal is to create chaos and create issues for your offensive line in both pass protection and the run-game schemes. They move guys around before the snap. They bring linebackers off the edge, bring them up the middle. You never know where those guys are coming from.”
Southern has allowed the second-fewest sacks in the SWAC with just seven in 11 games, but that’s against more conventional defenses. Alcorn State has allowed just six sacks, a third of which came in its 28-21 loss to Grambling.
There aren’t many statistical rankings that indicate potential mismatches in this matchup. It’s eye-catching that Grambling is ranked last in passing yards allowed (267.0 yards per game), but that’s not a fair indicator of the effectiveness of the pass defense because the sack yardage (278) comes out of the rushing totals. When it comes to pass efficiency defense — and not just yards — the Tigers rank third (134.4).
Southern ranks sixth in passing yards (224.5) and seventh in passing efficiency (125.7).
Grambling’s strength in ranking second on third-down defense isn’t matched by Southern, which ranks eighth.
A strength-vs.-strength matchup will occur whenever Grambling kicks off. The Tigers are second in kickoffs (39.4), the Jaguars are first in kickoff return average (25.3) and three Southern players have scored touchdowns on kickoff returns this season.
The Jaguars might have more success on punt returns, where they rank third (14.6) and the Tigers rank sixth in net punting (30.5).
Grambling has 13 more sacks than Southern, but 26 of the Jaguars’ 32 sacks have come during their current six-game win streak. That means their average of late (4.3) is slightly better than the Tigers’ season-long average (4.1).
The biggest statistical disparity is in penalties. Southern is the least-penalized team (86) and Grambling is the second-most penalized team (117).
But all in all, the statistical comparisons are only slightly less even that the matching 7-1 won-lost records in SWAC play.
Follow Les East on Twitter @EastAdvocate.