Southern quarterback LaDarius Skelton’s much-anticipated Bayou Classic debut looked at the start like a warmup act. By the second half it had turned smashing.
Skelton, a sophomore transfer playing in his first Classic, threw two of his three touchdown passes in the third quarter to break the game open and carry the Jaguars to a 38-28 victory at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Saturday.
The raw stats weren’t important to the Jaguar Nation. Skelton and his mates delivered Southern from Grambling’s three-game Bayou Classic winning streak and landed the SWAC West Division title. Southern (7-3, 6-1 in SWAC play) will play at East Division champ Alcorn State on Saturday for the conference title.
After a Grambling field goal cut the lead to 17-13, Skelton connected with Kendall Catalon for an 80-yard scoring toss, getting the Jaguars out of a big hole on a third-and-23. The Southern defense stopped Grambling on a fourth down at the Jaguars 35. Skelton dashed 23 yards to set up a 44-yard scoring strike to sixth-year senior Randall Manard with 3:22 left for a 31-13 lead.
“I thought he made some third-down plays, runs with his feet and great throws on his own,” Southern coach Dawson Odums said. “His confidence is through the roof. Our receivers know he’s got a chance to get them the ball. He’s got great command of the offense, and he did some really good things. He did a couple bad things, but he played the next play.”
Skelton was 4 of 8 in the first half but finished 8 of 14 for 217 yards. He also kept drives alive with his running ability, netting 79 yards on 17 carries. His first scoring pass was a 23-yarder TD pass to Trey Smith in the first half.
“We knew he was elusive,” Grambling coach Broderick Fobbs said. “We knew we had to contain him, and we didn’t.”
Skelton had help. Running back Devon Benn had his first 100-yard rushing game with 167 yards on 19 carries and a 3-yard scoring run that helped stymie Grambling after it cut Southern’s lead to 31-28 on a pair of Geremy Hickbottom touchdown runs.
Special teams and defense did their part. After a three- and-out to start the game, Kordell Caldwell blocked a Grambling punt and Benjamin Harris recovered in the end zone for a 7-0 lead less than two minutes into the game.
When Grambling threatened to tie the game in the third quarter with a first-and-goal at the Jaguars 8, the defense forced a field goal. Skelton hit Catalon with the longest pass of the season on the next series.
After Benn’s TD, the Southern pass rush turned up the heat on Hickbottom on the next possession, with Joe Davis, Calvin Lunkins and Jordan Lewis each sacking him once to force a punt. The Tigers didn’t get the ball back until 1:51 remained.
Skelton led the Southern offense to a balanced offensive output of 233 yards rushing and 247 passing. The Jaguars defense stifled the Grambling running game and forced Hickbottom to scramble with tight coverage in the secondary.
Southern led 17-10 but missed an opportunity to add to the lead when the defense produced another three-and-out. A 19-yard completion from Skelton to Jamar Washington helped move the Jaguars into position for a 42-yard field goal attempt by Cesar Barajas, but former Southern Lab standout Joe McWilliams rushed from the left side and blocked it, his seventh career block and third blocked kick this season.
Grambling finally got its offense clicking after being backed up to its 5-yard line. The Tigers went 95 yards in 10 plays with the help of a 7-yard run by backup quarterback Charles Wright on third-and-2. Hickbottom capped the drive when he escaped the pocket by running to his left and found Darrel Clark running across the end zone for the game-tying touchdown.
Skelton’s running helped the Jaguars retake the lead. He pulled the ball back after a zone read fake and went 40 yards and a pass interference penalty by Grambling’s Percy Cargo moved the ball to the Tigers 20-yard line. But a sack of Skelton by D’Andre Hogues forced Southern to settle for a 47-yard field goal by Barajas with 8:46 left in the half.
A penalty on the ensuing kickoff and a tackle for loss by Dakavion Champion pushed the Tigers back and forced a punt from the end zone that was returned to the Grambling 43 by Timothy Thomas. Skelton kept the drive alive with a fourth-down scramble before hitting Trey Smith with a perfect pass at the sideline for a 23-yard score. Smith beat cornerback Devanir Martin and just got both feet in bounds for his team-leading seventh TD reception.
Grambling responded to cut the lead to 17-10 just before halftime. Wide receiver Quinton Guice turned a medium throw by Hickbottom into a 30-yard pass and run on the first play after the kickoff. The Tigers overcame a sack with two scrambles for 18 yards by Hickbottom, and Marc Orozco kicked a 44-yard field goal with 33 seconds left.