Last Sunday, Southern coach Dawson Odums put his team through some of the hardest preparation of the year — all without helmets or pads.
A year ago, his Jaguars held a narrow one-point lead over Grambling with 5:02 to go in the Bayou Classic. In the heat of the moment, his defense was overpowered, falling to their archrival.
Odums made his team watch all 302 seconds of film in preparation for the rematch.
“Our motto all year has been playing 60 minutes,” he said. “When you play like that, you’ve got a chance.”
Saturday night in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, in a 38-28 victory that ended the Jaguars' three-game skid, Odums’ defensive unit bent at times but never broke.
It marked Southern’s first victory over Grambling since 2014, earning the Jaguars a berth in the SWAC championship game Dec. 1 at Alcorn State.
Yes, Southern quarterback Ladarius Skelton launched a trio of big plays with touchdown passes of 80, 44 and 23 yards. The special-teams unit chipped in with a blocked punt on the game’s first drive, ending with Benjamin Harris pouncing on a loose ball in the end zone for an early 7-0 lead.
But the defense made those big plays stick.
The Grambling offense had another three-and-out on its second possession. Their third time, SU defensive back Elijah Small made an acrobatic leap and a quick toe-touch to snag an interception off Grambling quarterback Geremy Hickbottom in Tigers territory.
Southern (7-3, 6-1) kept the pressure on Hickbottom throughout the game, forcing him to scramble outside the pocket more often than not. Outside of his 30-yard touchdown pass to Darrell Clark at the end of the first quarter, Southern kept his big-play potential contained.
Since taking over at quarterback with six games left in the regular season, Hickbottom had turned the Grambling offense into a well-oiled machine. He entered Saturday leading the Tigers in rushing with 440 yards and added 1,482 yards passing with 14 touchdowns in six games.
As a unit, Grambling (6-5, 4-3) averaged nearly 400 yards per game this season and 38 points in its six victories.
One other thing: On Saturday night, the Grambling defense recovered two fumbles in the second half, giving the ball to their offense inside the red zone both times.
Obviously, Southern’s defense had a tough assignment.
But the Jaguars' front seven turned the Tigers largely into a one-dimensional offense, one that gained just 94 yards rushing and 213 yards passing.
“When our quarterback is leading the team in rushing yards, that can’t happen,” Grambling coach Broderick Fobbs said. “Anytime you get in a situation where the other team knows you can’t run the ball, it’s like throwing a fastball every play. It keeps you on your heels, and you become a target.”
Midway through the fourth quarter, Odums’ offense held just a three-point lead, 31-28.
The similarities to last year’s collapse were beginning to build, but the coach began to see a different response on the sideline.
First, the offense stormed 65 yards down the field to push the deficit back to double-digits.
Then the defense held up its end of the bargain.
Grambling took over on its own 25, looking to work some late magic that led to last year’s 30-21 victory. Instead, Southern sacked Hickbottom three times in six plays, forcing a punt.
On the final drive of the game, Southern forced an apparent strip-sack of Hickbottom and took the ball into the end zone. Even though the officials blew the play dead, Odums couldn’t help but appreciate the effort his defensive unit put in until the clock turned to zero.
“You could just see the confidence,” he said. “When you’ve got that feeling as a head coach, you know you’ve got something good.
“Once we got the lead back, we knew the defense wasn’t going to let them down there, and that’s the sign of a good football team.”