Southern is headed back to Houston.
The Jaguars will have an opportunity to repeat as Southwestern Athletic Conference champions after beating Grambling 52-45 in a showdown for the West Division title in the 41st annual Bayou Classic on Saturday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
The highest-scoring Bayou Classic, which featured 995 yards of offense, was decided when Tigers quarterback Johnathan Williams couldn’t sneak into the end zone from about 18 inches away on the final play.
Southern, which improved to 9-3 and 8-1 after its seventh consecutive victory, will play East Division champion Alcorn State in the SWAC championship next Saturday at NRG Stadium in Houston. The Tigers, losers for the second game in row after a 7-0 start in league play, finished 7-5 and 7-2.
“That’ll probably go down as one of the greatest Classics ever,” a hoarse Jaguars coach Dawson Odums said. “There were a lot of peaks and valleys, but whatever team was able to control their emotions and play to the end (was going to win).”
Freshman quarterback Austin Howard was named Southern’s MVP after throwing for 258 yards and three touchdowns, including three completions to Mike Jones for 130 yards and two scores. Lenard Tillery ran for 168 of the Jaguars’ 226 yards and scored two touchdowns as he became the school’s first 1,000-yard rusher in 11 years by increasing his season total to 1,141.
Grambling outgained Southern 511-484 but had to run 32 more plays to do so, and many of those yards came during a comeback that fell just short. Williams was named the Tigers’ MVP after completing 33 of 64 passes for 450 yards and four touchdowns and rushing for 50 more yards.
Southern led by 21 points on three occasions, but Grambling kept fighting back.
“I’m pleased that we didn’t give up,” first-year coach Broderick Fobbs said. “I’m not pleased with the way we played and the lack of execution in certain areas. There’s a reason why they won the West last year, and they’re going back (to Houston) to defend the West. But you’ve got to beat them. You’ve got to beat the best, and we fell short.”
Deonte Shorts’ 4-yard touchdown run gave the Jaguars a 45-24 lead with 10:12 left in the third quarter.
Williams threw a 3-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Byrdsong to cut the deficit to two touchdowns with 4:17 left in the third.
Southern, which scored points on seven of its first nine possessions, punted on three consecutive possessions before Howard was intercepted by Nicholas People, giving the Tigers the ball at the Jaguars 25.
Three plays later, Williams threw a 14-yard touchdown to Verlon Hunter to get Grambling within 45-38 with 8:05 left.
Jaleel Richardson returned the ensuing kickoff 79 yards for a touchdown, and the Tigers responded on their next play from scrimmage with a 76-yard touchdown pass from Williams to Chester Rogers. That left Southern with a 52-45 lead with 7:30 left.
The Jaguars missed a chance to extend the lead when Tyree Hollins blocked Greg Pittman’s 37-yard field-goal attempt and returned the ball to the 39 with 2:30 left.
“We had to go back on the field with a little more than two minutes to go in the game, and we had to make a stop,” Odums said. “If we didn’t, they were going to have to decide whether to go for two to try and win it or kick it to go to overtime.”
It looked like Fobbs would be faced with that decision as Williams gradually moved the Tigers near the goal line. His 8-yard run on fourth-and-8 gave them first-and-goal at the half-yard line with 8 seconds left.
Grambling was out of timeouts and lined up before Southern called time to set its defense.
The Tigers ran a sneak with Williams; nose tackle Gabe Echols stopped center Andre Gunn’s progress, leaving Williams with no room as Echols’ teammates swarmed and stopped him for no gain.
“They were on the inch line,” Odums said. “I thought it was a great call by them. We set our defense to try and push them back. I think they put the ball in the hands of the best player on their team.”
The Jaguars started celebrating, but they had to wait for replay confirmation to be sure they were indeed headed back to Houston. It came quickly.
“It was all determination and will,” Echols said. “We’re going to Houston again, and we’re planning on winning it again.”
Southern threatened to take all of the drama out of the game early as Howard threw three touchdown passes to build a 31-10 lead. Williams’ 5-yard touchdown pass to Hunter just before halftime gave the Tigers a lift, but Tillery answered that with a 52-yard touchdown run on the first possession of the second half.
Ka’Jandre Domino returned the ensuing kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown, and the back-and-forth finish was underway.
“This was a heavyweight fight,” Odums said. “You’ve got to answer the bell, and we answered the bell.”
The Jaguars haven’t lost in nine weeks — since a 56-16 loss at Alcorn State on Sept. 27.
“It was a wild game,” Southern defensive end Arthur Miley said of Saturday’s battle. “We knew they wouldn’t quit and they would keep fighting.
“This game meant a lot because we knew we had to go through them to get back to the championship, and that game means the most to us.”