Grambling established itself as the best team in the Southwestern Athletic Conference regular season as it won its first eight games.
But even with a West Division championship in hand, the Tigers had much more to accomplish against Southern in the Bayou Classic on Saturday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Despite a slow start, they did just that. Grambling put the final touches on a perfect SWAC regular season, overcoming a 17-point second-quarter deficit to beat the Jaguars 34-23.
The Tigers, 9-2 overall and ranked No. 1 among historically black colleges and universities, ended a three-game losing streak against Southern. They will face defending conference champion Alcorn State in the SWAC championship game next Saturday in Houston.
“This has always been a championship game for me,” said Grambling second-year coach Broderick Fobbs, who participated in four Classics as a player. “I never looked at it as an opportunity to rest my guys so we can be ready for next week. That’s crazy.”
The Jaguars, who won the West the previous two years, finished 6-5 and 6-3 after losing for the first time in 12 November games.
“The game is 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical, and they won both,” Southern linebacker Daniel Brown said. “They just wanted it more. Those guys were hungry.”
Grambling quarterback Johnathan Williams, the SWAC’s leader in total offense who was playing in his final Bayou Classic, accounted for 350 yards and four touchdowns. He was 20-of-34 for 272 yards and three touchdowns; he also ran nine times for 78 yards and a touchdown that put the Tigers ahead for good early in the third quarter.
“Against a good football team, you have to sustain it for 60 minutes,” Jaguars coach Dawson Odums said. “They outplayed us in the second half.”
Southern raced to a 20-3 second-quarter lead before Grambling turned things around, scoring back-to-back touchdowns to get within three points at halftime.
The Tigers received the second-half kickoff and went three-and-out, but the possession was revived when the Jaguars’ Justin Morgan was called for running into punter Jonathan Wallace.
That gave Grambling a first down, and it took advantage, driving to Williams’ 1-yard touchdown run and a 24-20 lead that it took into the fourth quarter.
Williams’ 54-yard touchdown pass to Chad Williams on the first play of the fourth quarter increased the lead to 31-20. Greg Pittman’s 33-yard field goal made it a one-score game with 8:04 left, but the Tigers answered with Marc Orozco’s 22-yarder with 2:11 left that made it 34-23.
“We’ve had a lot of success around here the last couple of years,” Brown said, “and sometimes you need to be humbled.”
Southern came out throwing, and it paid off. It took the opening kickoff and drove 63 yards — all in the air, the final 27 of which came on a touchdown pass from Austin Howard to Willie Quinn.
Grambling answered with Orozco’s 28-yard field goal, but Southern mixed the pass and the run on a 68-yard drive before Lenard Tillery ran 2 yards for a touchdown that gave the Jaguars a 13-3 lead after one quarter.
The lead grew to 20-3 early in the second quarter when Howard ran 13 yards for a touchdown.
“We knew they had an explosive offense,” Howard said, “but we have one, too, so we tried to get off to a fast start.”
The Tigers woke up on the ensuing possession as Williams drove them 75 yards, getting the final 2 on a touchdown pass to KaJandre Domino.
Southern moved into Grambling territory again, but Howard’s pass down the middle was intercepted by Nicholas Peoples, who returned the ball to the 46-yard line. Six plays later, Williams threw a 4-yard touchdown pass to Verlan Hunter, cutting the Jaguars’ lead to 20-17.
Another turnover halted another Southern scoring threat when Nico Talbert fumbled and the Tigers recovered at the 2.
“They didn’t make the same mistakes that we made,” Howard said.
Williams moved the Tigers into scoring position again, but they used up their final two timeouts en route. Williams’ completion to Jestin Kelly put the ball at the Southern 23 as the clock wound inside of 10 seconds left in the first half.
Grambling hustled to the line of scrimmage and Williams tried to get the ball snapped to down the ball, but the officials intervened and delayed the snap. Once the ball was snapped, Williams spiked it, but the officials called delay of game on the Tigers, necessitating a 10-second run-off that ended the half.
That was the last stumbling block for the Tigers, who pulled way in the second half before they could turn their attention to their first SWAC title game since 2011. It marks the third time in four years that the winner of the Bayou Classic was also the West representative in the title game.
“They say the Bayou Classic has lost its luster,” Fobbs said. “I don’t think so.”