To get the unvarnished truth from a coach, you must often wait for an unguarded moment.
Like an unexpected encounter, in an elevator.
“We've got to have this one,” Southern coach Dawson Odums said Tuesday, musing about the 45th annual Bayou Classic during a short elevator ride at the Jaguars field house.
That line cut through all the coach-speak Odums and his Grambling counterpart, Broderick Fobbs, delivered a day before at the traditional kickoff news conference in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Grambling has not only won three straight Classics. In the past two seasons, the Tigers used the victory to catapult themselves to a pair of Southwestern Athletic Conference titles and into the Celebration Bowl, winning it all two years ago.
Odums was only voicing what’s on the mind of every soul in Jaguar Nation when Southern and Grambling get together for the annual clash at 4 p.m. Saturday in the Superdome.
Fobbs had to be thinking the same thought after his first Bayou Classic as the Tigers coach, Grambling's third consecutive loss in 2014.
The series often goes back and forth. The longest streak by either is nine games by Southern (1993-2000). Grambling has a five-game streak and two fours, but fans coaches and administrators of both know they can’t let being on the wrong side of the scoreboard go on too long.
The combatants know the game has a completely different feel from the rest of the schedule. Emotions run higher, requiring more focus and poise. A close game can slip into a rout quickly, and momentum changes happen often. And once again, the SWAC West Division title and a berth in the championship game is on the line.
“I think it’s a mindset,” Odums said of playing in the game. “You’ve got to go through some pain before you can overcome it. Last year’s loss — it really hurt; everyone in the program because we were so close. It’s because we were playing against a really good program. They built the type of mindset you’ve got to go out and win football games. They’re not going to help you and give it away.”
Said Fobbs: “The team that executes the best wins. That’s what we focus on.”
The Jaguars were in position to win last year’s seesaw battle when defensive tackle Dakavion Champion recovered a fumble to set up a go-ahead touchdown to make it 21-20 with 5:02 left.
But Grambling’s Malik Route returned the ensuing kickoff 40 yards, and six plays later, the Tigers took the lead for good, 27-21. The defense took over, forcing a fumble and an interception by quarterback Austin Howard to stop the Jaguars' last two chances.
This year the teams enter the game with parallel storylines. Both have been relying on strong team defense while making midseason quarterback changes to spur their late runs. Southern hasn’t lost since quarterback LaDarius Skelton took over four games ago, and Grambling is 5-1 since Geremy Hickbottom got the starting job.
Both teams lost to East champion Alcorn State, which will host the winner in the conference title game next week.
“Everything is working for us in this (winning) streak,” Southern senior wide receiver Kendall Catalon said. “We’ve been staying after practice to work on the little things we need to improve. On offense, it starts with the offensive line and spreads out from there.”
Southern is averaging 39 points and 409.3 yards on offense. Outside of two late scores by Arkansas-Pine Bluff in a 56-20 win, the Jaguars defense has allowed no more than one touchdown in those four games. As the starter, Skelton has completed 40 of 77 passes for 56 yards and six TDs with only one interception. He’s rushed for 378 yards and five more scores.
Grambling’s defense has been turning over opponents with 27 takeaways and 11 blocked kicks or punts. Since becoming the starter, Hickbottom has completed 107 of 176 passes for 1,482 yards and 14 TDs. He has also taken over the team rushing lead with 440 yards and six scores for the season.
“We lost a lot of great players, and it took us a while to figure those things out,” Fobbs said. “We’ve gotten some help from some other teams that have won games and beat people that put us right back in this situation, but we’ve done our part as well.”
Fobbs had former Tigers quarterback DeVante Kincade and running back Martez Carter in mind — players who marked the Classic with dominant performances. Odums said Kincade “willed” Grambling to victory last year.
Southern has had its share of them, too. But Odums knows every year, a new set of heroes can emerge.
“I can’t tell you who is going to have a big game,” Odums said. “It won’t surprise me if somebody that hasn’t had one up to this point steps up and makes some play. We got a lot of playmakers, guys who haven’t made them throughout the year but are capable of it.
“It will come down to composure, attitude and determination. Whatever team shows it is the one who’s going to win.”