This weekend, Jackson State University will celebrate the 100th anniversary of a football program that began modestly in 1911.
What a century it’s been.
Hundreds of victories. Legendary players like Lem Barney, Jackie Slater and Walter Payton. Legendary coaches like W.C. Gordon.
Sixteen Southwestern Athletic Conference championships - a total that trails only Southern (18) and Grambling (22).
“You and I both know that when you talk about Jackson State and you talk about Grambling, you’re talking about two schools (that are) basically in the same boat,” Grambling coach Doug Williams said.
Perhaps that’s why JSU chose this weekend for a big celebration.
What better time to hold a party than when Grambling comes to town?
Jackson State and Grambling meet at 2 p.m. Saturday in Veterans Memorial Stadium. They’ve faced each other six times in the past four years, including twice in the SWAC Championship game. And when two of the SWAC’s most prestigious programs collide, it’s always a hoot.
College football historians know all about Eddie Robinson and six Pro Football Hall of Famers, and, come to think of it, Williams, the current coach.
JSU, of course, can nearly match Grambling, player for player, title for title.
This, of course, is not exactly a vintage year for Grambling - but Williams’ team hasn’t called it a season. In fact, Grambling has won three straight games, pulling into a three-way tie for second place in a rather weak Western Division.
“I thought they were always good,” JSU coach Rick Comegy said. “They might’ve stumbled along the way. ... They’re winning some games, which in the past they lost and should’ve won. We’re just going to play football and do what we’ve got to do in order to come out on top.”
Comegy’s team, like Southern, cannot play in the SWAC title game, thanks to a low APR score that led conference presidents and chancellors to ban both teams from the event.
But JSU has another goal: to finish atop the Sheridan poll and claim a black college national championship.
Jackson State ascended to No. 1 this week, thanks largely to a dynamic offense led by star quarterback Casey Therriault.
In a 44-14 blowout of Prairie View last week, Therriault threw for 398 yards and three touchdowns.
“I think he has that feel in the pocket,” Williams said of Therriault. “He knows when trouble is lurking. He knows when to stand there, and he certainly knows when to get out.”
Prairie View coach Heishma Northern certainly agrees.
Northern could only chuckle as he recalled one play last week, in which PV linebacker Elton Holmes had a free and clear shot at sacking Therriault.
The quarterback pump-faked, causing Holmes to jump. That allowed Therriault to take off and escape.
“He has a great feel for the game. You can watch him slide two steps and throw sidearm.”
Therriault, of course, is not a one-person wrecking crew. With dynamic running backs and athletic receivers, JSU ranks first in the SWAC in total offense, scoring offense and passing offense.
But JSU is also flawed. It ranks last in turnover margin at minus-16, and it has made only three field goals all season.
Earlier this season, Jackson State barely escaped from Southern and Mississippi Valley State, winning both games by a combined five points.
So, will JSU win handily, or will it get sloppy and stumble against Grambling, a team that rebounded from a terrible start to win its past three games?
“We’ve just got to get ourselves prepared and try to be ready for everything. ... But we know there’s no way they’re going to come in and say, ?OK, Jackson State, here it is,’ “ Comegy said.
In other words, JSU doesn’t expect Grambling to hand over an easy win.
After all, these are pretty proud football programs.