NEW ORLEANS — All hope seemed lost for Grambling. On Oct. 1, after a 31-23 loss to Prairie View A&M, Grambling fell to 1-4 on the season, dropping its fourth consecutive game.
But something changed for the Tigers.
After an open date, the Doug Williams-coached Tigers roared back and ran off six straight wins, including a dominating 36-12 win over Southern University in the Bayou Classic on Saturday.
Grambling’s second-half success has translated to a SWAC West division title and a shot at Alabama A&M on Dec. 10 for the Southwestern Athletic Conference championship.
“To be where we are now and to consider where we were in the first five weeks speaks volumes to these young guys that didn’t give up,” Williams said. “We have a lot of confidence in where we are now, because of where we came from.”
This season marks Williams’ second stint as head coach for Grambling. Williams previously coached from 1998-2003, when he posted a 52-18 record. But Williams didn’t want to make this game, or the season for that matter, about him.
He credits the success of this season to his players, saying that he came into the perfect situation at Grambling.
While being candid about his return, running back Dawrence Roberts said the strong turnaround and performance all season long means everything to Williams.
“When we were 1-4, everybody was looking down on us,” Roberts said. “It shows him (Williams) that all our hard work and everything we did paid off.”
To get to the SWAC championship, Grambling put together a rather simple game plan: run and run often.
Southern came into the game allowing 177 yards per game to opposing running backs. And this season, Grambling showed the willingness to run, averaging 35 rushes per-game. Of the Tigers’ 72 offensive plays Saturday, 55 were runs.
Roberts proved to be the beneficiary. He carried the ball 36 times — 21 in the first half — for 195 yards and a touchdown. After small to medium gains wore down the Jaguars defense, the straw finally broke SU’s back.
With two seconds remaining in the third quarter, Roberts took the handoff and scampered 68 yards, which led to a 28-yard Zoltan Riazzo field goal.
“That’s one thing I tell my offensive line: ‘If you help me out, I will help you out,’” Roberts said. “I told myself if I get to the corner I’m going to score, and that’s exactly what I did.”
Besides a stout rushing attack, Grambling came with a swarming defense that allowed a season-low 174 yards to Southern. It was the third time this season Grambling held a team to less than 300 yards.
The Tigers sacked Southern quarterbacks J.P. Douglas and Dray Joseph seven times and held Southern to minus-31 rushing yards.
Captain Cliff Exama led the Tigers with seven tackles and 1.5 sacks, and recorded his first interception of the season off a Joseph pass with 1:27 left in the game.
Grambling made it four straight wins at the Bayou Classic with Saturday’s win.
“We got bragging rights for a whole year,” Exama said.