With the score 31-10 and less than four minutes left before halftime, the Bayou Classic was looking like a Southern University runaway on Saturday at the Superdome.
And when the Jaguars took another 21-point lead – 45-24 – with 10 minutes left in the game, it certainly appeared bleak concerning Grambling State’s chances of coming back to win and advancing to Southwestern Athletic Conference Championship Game on Saturday in Houston.
However, the Tigers (7-5, 7-1) did come back. They fell inches short of the tying touchdown, as Johnathan Williams’ quarterback sneak from inside the 1-yard line was stuffed by Southern’s interior defensive line as time expired in the Jaguars’ 52-45 win.
“I don’t believe in moral victories, but I thought we just dug deep,” Grambling coach Broderick Fobbs said concerning the comeback. “But we dug ourselves too deep of a hole.”
Williams had scrambled from the 12 to about a half yard from the goal line with 12 seconds left. Officials reviewed the play to see if he had scored. Fobbs said Grambling was going to spike the ball as soon as play resumed to stop the clock and perhaps give the Tigers enough time for two passing plays.
“We were getting ready to spike the ball and kill the clock, but Southern called a timeout (with eight seconds left),” he said. “Since they called a timeout, then a play has to start for the clock to run. So it gave us a chance to run a play instead of spiking the ball.”
The Tigers’ final comeback from the 21-point deficit came mainly on the arm and legs of Williams, easily selected Grambling’s MVP for the game, with 450 yards passing and four touchdowns.
In the fourth quarter alone, he completed 11 of 24 passes for 161 yards and two touchdowns. He threw for 246 yards and three touchdowns in the second half.
“We just came out and executed more the way our coaches wanted us to,” Williams said. “The key was just being together, being a great team.”
Fobbs said Grambling, which used more three- and four-wideout sets late in the game, did a better job of exploiting Southern’s defensive coverage.
Southern coach Dawson Odums said the Jaguars’ pass defense wasn’t the best in the fourth quarter. But Williams, who also rushed for 87 yards on 20 carries, had a lot to do with that.
“We didn’t execute very well on the deep ball,” Odums said. “But a lot of it was on scrambles. He was running around and throwing it up, and we lost guys in coverage.”
Grambling’s surge began with a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Ks’Jand Domino two minutes into the third quarter that brought the Tigers to 38-24. Although Southern pushed the margin to 21 again less than three minutes later, Fobbs said the play was significant.
“It gave us a spark,” he said.
Williams took over late in the third quarter. From the 4:17 mark of the third to 7:30 of the fourth quarter, he threw for three touchdowns, including a 76-yarder to Chester Rogers for the final one that brought Grambling to the game’s final score.
The final drive began at the Tigers’ 39 after a Jaguars’ field-goal attempt was blocked.
However, Fobbs said it shouldn’t have come to that. Grambling, which never led in the game, had too much of an uphill battle. The Jaguars crushed them with big plays, mostly on two long touchdown receptions by Mike Jones, including the second one with 3:50 showing before halftime that gave Southern its first 21-point lead.
“We didn’t execute very well in the first half,” Fobbs said. “I thought they outplayed us early in the ballgame. We made some mistakes. Some of it had to do with them, and some of it was us.”
Williams threw his lone interception at 3:59 of the second quarter, and Jones followed with a 55-yard touchdown reception from Austin Howard on the next play for the 31-10 lead. Grambling also was penalized nine times in the first half for 75 yards.