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Southern University quarterback Austin Howard (7) fumbles after he is sacked by Grambling State defensive lineman Anfernee Mullins during the second half of the 44th annual Bayou Classic on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2017, at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Grambling won 30-21.

Advocate staff photo by SCOTT THRELKELD

A theme was forming for Southern: The Jaguars had whiffed on too many opportunities and a third consecutive Bayou Classic win for Grambling was brewing. And so, the Tigers' 25th Southwestern Athletic Conference win in a row seemed fairly inevitable.

That was until Southern snatched a third-quarter fumble and quarterback Austin Howard began generating excellence, as he has for much of the later stages of his senior season, when Southern was emptied of momentum and reliant on hope.

The third quarter’s fumble-score swing muddied any certainty regarding how Grambling's eventual 31-20 win in the 44th annual Bayou Classic would end, diminishing the 17-7 lead Grambling’s smooth offense created by halftime.

Southern linebacker Kaycee Ntukogu forced the fumble as nearly five minutes remained in the third quarter. Howard, 80 seconds later, dropped a beauty in the hands of Kendall Catalon as he gracefully slid across the Mercedes-Benz Superdome's end zone.

Following the touchdown, Saturday's game, the SWAC's Western Division and a bid to the conference championship game was going to go to which of Louisiana's SWAC teams could muster enough to hold off their fiercest rival.

"We just had to go out there and find out that we can play with (Grambling), and y'all are nobody special," defensive lineman Aaron Tiller said. "But sometimes it doesn't go in your favor."

However, Grambling used a Southern missed field goal, blocked another field goal (six total points the Jaguars couldn’t cash in) and recovered a fourth quarter fumble by Howard to move its winning streak to 10 games this season and end Southern's streak at six.

"When you're playing good football teams, you've got to get seven," Southern coach Dawson Odums said. "It can't come down to field goals. We missed the opportunities, and that's six points. ... You've got to give yourself a chance in the ball game. And in special teams, we had some blunders."

Howard rifled an 8-yard touchdown dart to fellow senior, tight end Dillon Beard, to set the Jaguars with a 21-20 lead as 5:03 remained in the fourth quarter.

Then, a long kickoff led to a quick Grambling touchdown and a six-point lead before Howard's dooming sack/fumble clinched the Bayou Classic.

"They made the best of their opportunities and took the game," Edwards said.

"This game went back and forth," Odums said.

Southern whiffed on many easy points early.

Howard spent the first five seconds of Saturday's game zipping an interception to Grambling's Ja'Teri Pouncy. Southern kicker Cesar Barajas capped a 16-play, 72-yard drive with a missed 25-yard field goal to end Southern's second drive.

Southern had a field goal blocked in the third quarter — its third blocked field goal this season.

"The better team just won today," Edwards said. "End of story."