When looking for a key to Grambling State’s late-season surge, credit a defense that rises to the occasion.

The Tigers fought their way into the Southwest Athletic Conference West Division race with a six-game winning streak, bolstered by an opportunistic defense which Southern will face in Saturday’s Bayou Classic Clash at 4 p.m. in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

While the Tigers defensive unit is ranked a mediocre sixth in yards allowed (397.7), Grambling leads the league in turnovers with 24, and is tied for fourth with 25 sacks playing at least one less game than the rest of the league.

“They do a great job of taking the ball away, it’s an opportunistic defense,” Southern coach Dawson Odums said, shaking his head. “They create a lot of pressure, with three or four down linemen and bringing five or six guys in the pass rush. We’ve been against this team so many times, our guys understand the exotic looks we’re going to get. It comes down to our quarterback playing well.”

Jaguars quarterback Ladarius Skelton is going to get an eyeful. The Tigers have 12 sacks and 12 interceptions in the last four games. Grambling’s 17 picks are second to Alcorn’s 18 with the Braves playing one more game.

“Defensively we’re flying around to the football and being physical,” Grambling coach Broderick Fobbs said. “In the secondary, we’re playing more zone than in the past. We’re trying to disrupt what (opponents) are seeing pre-snap as opposed to post snap. It’s allowed us to create confusion and get to the quarterback.”

Leading the way in the secondary is All-SWAC cornerback Joseph McWilliams, who leads the league with six picks, giving him 11 for his career, and has five of Grambling’s 30 passes broken up. McWilliams has three of Grambling’s four interception returns for touchdowns.

McWilliams has also shown his aggressiveness at the line of scrimmage with five tackles for loss. The 5-foot-11, 190-pounder is a product of Southern Lab in the shadow of Southern’s Baton Rouge campus.

“Joe has been a great player for us since he was a freshman,” Fobbs said. “He’s matured. He studies the game. He knows the importance of looking at film, even knowing what their facial expression is saying. That’s what we talk about. I’m pleased he’s having success because he’s put in the work.”

McWilliams has gotten support from teammate Devanir Martin's three picks and six passes broken up.

The Grambling pass rush has been led by end Anfernee Mullins, a transfer from Mississippi State, with team highs in sacks (seven) and tackles for loss (11.5). But Mullins’ status for the game is in doubt after his arrest last week, his third arrest in three years.

Linebacker De’Andre McCarthy is also an impact defender with 10.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks.

The Tigers showed an improved run defense in recent weeks, holding Alcorn State to 116 yards in a 19-16 overtime victory.

“Our offensive line has got to win the battle in the trenches,” Odums said. “And we’ve got to protect the quarterback. We know they’re going to be coming after him.”