Grambling left no room for doubt about who was the best team on the Mercedes-Benz Superdome turf for Saturday's 43rd Bayou Classic.
Grambling gashed Southern and its previously stingy defense for 571 yards. It forced a pair of critical early turnovers against a Jaguars unit that had taken great care of the ball all season and kept an explosive Southern offense largely at bay.
Most importantly, Grambling snapped Southern’s eight-game winning streak and extended its own to nine, punching its ticket to the Southwestern Athletic Conference championship game and ending Southern’s season with a 52-30 win.
“What can you say?” said senior guard Anthony Mosley. “That’s a good football team. They beat us.”
All of this was despite a Herculean effort from Southern running back Lenard Tillery, whose college career ended on a day when he ran for nearly 200 yards in the first half. He finished with 230 yards on 25 carries and two total touchdowns.
“I really thought we could run the football,” Southern coach Dawson Odums said. “… We were able to do that, but at the end of the day we didn’t score enough points. You can get all the yards you want, but you’ve got to have one more point than they have.”
Thanks to Tillery’s heroics, it was only a four-point game at halftime. Then Grambling (9-1, 9-0 SWAC) stepped on the accelerator and breezed past Southern (8-3, 8-1) with a series of explosive plays.
Grambling quarterback Devante Kincade was effective through the air, throwing for 283 yards and a score, but it was his legs that lit the powder keg when he zoomed through the heart of the Jaguars defense for a 45-yard touchdown on the Tigers’ first drive of the second half.
“That was huge,” Grambling coach Broderick Fobbs said. “We always talk about momentum, and he who has the momentum normally wins the football game.”
Southern had a chance to respond, and for a second, it looked like they would.
They went 47 yards in 10 plays to bring the ball inside the Grambling 15-yard line, but that 10th play was a third down run by Tillery that ended up about 2 yards shy of the sticks. Odums decided to go for it on 4th-and-2 rather than kick a field goal that would have made it a 24-16 game.
“We were behind, trying to get some points on the board,” Odums said. “Field goals won’t beat the good football team we played tonight. You’ve got to get touchdowns. They made plays, and we didn’t.”
Tillery was stuffed short of the line to gain, and Grambling started running away with the game.
Three plays later, the Tigers were back in the end zone when Martez Carter zipped through a massive lane cleared by his offensive line and raced for a 66-yard touchdown.
Carter finished with 279 all purpose yards, a total that was boosted by an 88-yard kick return that went for one of his three total touchdowns.
“Those guys were trigger-happy,” Carter said. “They was trying to fill those lanes. My O-line did a good job of getting to that second level and making it easy for me to make guys miss.”
Needing a response, Southern went three-and-out, a recurring theme in the second half. After giving up 289 yards in the first half, Grambling forced three three-and-outs in the second half, and only two of Southern’s eight second half drives went more than 26 yards.
“When you’re running off the field after a three-and-out, after a fourth-and-1 that you didn’t get, you already know what it can result in,” Tillery said. “Whenever you’re playing a good team, they’re going to capitalize … and that’s what they did.”
With Southern’s offense spinning its tires in the mud, Grambling piled on. Freshman Lyndemian Brooks started a three-play, 62-yard touchdown drive with a 26-yard catch-and-run and capped it with a 34-yard touchdown carry. It was the third straight drive that ended with a touchdown run of 30 or more yards.
The 21 unanswered points out of halftime essentially put the game away; the teams traded scores the remainder of the way. And all of this was after Southern came out of the gates strong.
Southern opened with a seven-play, 60-yard touchdown drive, capped by an 18-yard scoring strike from Austin Howard to Willie Quinn. But things nearly spun out of control for Southern after that score.
Grambling responded with a scoring drive of its own, and then the Jaguars started making mistakes. The next two Southern drives ended in turnovers, including one that took away what would’ve been a sure score when Howard lunged for the end zone on a bootleg keeper but fumbled the ball through the end zone before crossing the goal line.
While Southern took points away from itself with one turnover, Grambling turned the other — a Howard interception that bounced off Quinn’s hands — into a touchdown.
All in all, Grambling answered Southern’s opening drive with 17 unanswered points. Southern went into an offensive coma after the Howard fumble, gaining just 31 yards on the next three drives.
It was Tillery who served as the defibrillator for the slumping Jaguars. The Superdome roared to life when he burst through the line and outran the Tigers defense for an 85-yard touchdown.
But just as quickly as Southern gained that momentum, it was gone when the Tigers opened the second half with a 75-yard touchdown drive.
“You can have the momentum one second, but all it takes is one play to lose that momentum, and we didn’t ride the momentum like we should have,” Tillery said.