NEW ORLEANS — The Southern and Grambling offenses combined to gain nearly 1,000 yards of total offense, but it was defense that made the deciding play Saturday afternoon at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Grambling quarterback Johnathan Williams was stopped short of the goal line on a quarterback sneak as time ran out, and Southern held on 52-45 to win the 41st annual Bayou Classic.
The play capped an up-and-down day for Southern’s defense, which kept Grambling in check during the first half. The Tigers’ offense heated up in the second half and drove 60 yards in the final minutes looking to force overtime.
But, after picking up a first down insde the 1 with 12 seconds left, Grambling lost four seconds at the line of scrimmage before Southern called a time out. When play resumed, Williams took the snap and hit a wall. He was pushed back, and away from the goal line.
Southern linemen Gabe Echols, Jaylen Jordan and Arthur Miley provided the inside push as Williams never got to the goal line.
Echols, Jordan and Miley combined to make 13 tackles for the game, but none was bigger than the final stop.
“They were on the one-inch line. I thought (the quarterback sneak) was a great call by them,” Southern coach Dawson Odums said. “We set our defense to try and push them back. Gabriel Echols did a great job stuffing the center, and that gave us an opportunity to hold them short.”
With the outcome in the balance, Echols said he was ready for Grambing to try and assert itself at the line of scrimmage.
“All of the trick plays were out of the way. All of the pass plays were out of the way,” Echols said. “It was man on man, just grind and get it. They were coming with the quarterback sneak, and all I did was try and get a good push.”
Miley, one of Southern’s team captains, challenged the line during the time out preceding the final play.
“They had about a foot to get (a touchdown),” Miley said. “I told my defensive line it was on us. If we want to win this game, if we want to go back to the championship, we’ve got to stop them from getting this foot.
“We got a good push. He didn’t get in, and that’s all that counts.”
The last play also provided insight into the philosophy with which Odums tries to infuse his team. Its an approach grounded in getting players to put their all into the next play while forgetting what preceded it.
“I wasn’t too nervous (before the last play),” defensive back Jaleel Richardson said. “Coach always tells us we have to go through adversity. Even if we had to go to overtime, we were going to buckle our chin straps, put in our mouth pieces and go play football.”
Southern’s defense played well in the first half when it limited Grambling to two touchdown drives. The Tigers had a chance for a third score after recovering a muffed kickoff at the SU 19. Instead, the Jaguars held, and Grambling settled for Mark Orozco’s 39-yard field goal.
Williams’ scrambling ability helped buy him time in the second half when he tossed three scoring passes. The last was a 76-yard throw to Chester Rogers, who was 20 yards behind the defense.
“They put the ball up on some deep balls, and we didn’t do a good job of covering it,” Odums said. “A lot of it was off scrambles. (Williams) was running around and throwing it up, and we lost guys in coverage.”
Still, Southern’s defense regrouped. It righted itself, and eventually made what may have been its biggest stop of the season to preserve the win.
“We were fortunate we came out on the winning side,” Odums said. “It came down to the very last play, and that’s what makes it interesting for fans. That’s what the price of admission is for.”