Grambling still needs to find offensive balance
November 13, 2004
By Nick Deriso, email@example.com
GRAMBLING - The Grambling State coaches have talked about balancing the offense this season, about using the running game to ease the transition for a freshman under center.
"The main thing is to keep pressure off (first-year quarterback) Brandon Landers," said interim GSU coach Melvin Spears. "We want to be 50-50 in terms of running and passing."
That hasn't happened.
As GSU travels to Division I-AA independent Savannah State (2-7 overall), its offense is still in pass-first mode - despite losing senior All-American Bruce Eugene for the season in the opener.
In fact, the Tigers have averaged 31 passes a game - second in the Southwestern Athletic Conference. Yet, GSU has fewer completions than anyone in the top half of the SWAC.
Kickoff for the SSU game, a tuneup for the annual Bayou Classic, is at 1:30 p.m. today. It's Grambling State's final opportunity to put together both halves of the offense - and perhaps position itself to win against Southern for the first time in three seasons.
How much is GSU passing? The Tigers have 74 more attempts this season than their opponents.
That's not usually the recipe for success with a youngster at quarterback. GSU has already matched its interception total from last season - with two more games left on the schedule.
Still, Spears says the air show is to be expected when you examine what opposing defenses have given GSU - and accounts for this 4-5 season by saying his young offensive starters simply aren't making plays.
"The last game (a 37-23 loss to Alabama State, clinching a winless season at home), we got everything that we wanted," Spears said. "But when you're in the red zone, your guys have to beat their guys. We just didn't cash in."
Actually, the numbers illustrate an effort at balance from GSU. But it's more statistical that anything - and Landers' numbers (not to mention his noggin) are suffering.
On paper, the Tigers have gotten 75 first downs so far on the ground, and 79 in the air. A little more than 1,770 yards have come on rushing plays, with 2,180 added from passing the football in 2004.
But, the truth is, GSU's ground game has only been the focus for short bursts, then it's abruptly discarded.
For instance, the Tigers finished with 42 rushes and 33 pass attempts against Arkansas-Pine Bluff. A closer look shows that 16 of those running plays were called in succession as the game began, while the Tigers' final 14 plays were passes.
Similarly, GSU had 46 rushes with 33 passing attempts against Jackson State. But at one point GSU reeled off nearly 20 consecutive passing plays, followed by almost a dozen rushes.
Clearly, GSU was having success with its ground attack against Alabama State, as runners Ab Kuaan and Ruben Mayes grinded out 159 yards - and a startling combined average of eight yards per carry. But coaches gave up on the run in the third quarter, when the Tigers were only down by four.
Grambling State lost each of those games.
Spears reiterates that the opponent's defensive scheme made passing the logical option.
"Our guys came out and played with great effort," Spears said. "But winning comes down to execution. When we execute, there is no team in our league that can beat us. They executed better than us."
When the running game evaporates, however, teams can focus on harassing the freshman quarterback. And they are: GSU is tied with Mississippi Valley State for most quarterback tackles on the season, and no SWAC team has lost more yards on sacks.
In keeping, Landers' combined completion rate for the last two games, 34.95 percent, is actually 1.4 percent lower than his first game in relief of Eugene.
Yet, Landers keeps throwing.
"It's our job to help him have that confidence, so he can keep going out there to run the offense," said offensive coordinator Sammy White. "He's got a certain air about him. He's a great leader."
Still, if GSU hopes to steal a Bayou Classic win in two weeks, they will not only have to score points, but keep Southern's No. 2 offense off the field.
Running the ball does that.
The Tigers can use today's game against SSU to improve its No. 9 rank in the 10-member SWAC for rushing attempts. A consistently balanced approach might, in turn, affect some other stats: GSU leads the conference in interceptions, while it's seventh in completion percentage - and only one point ahead of last-place Texas Southern.
"I don't think it's anybody's fault," said Spears. "It's just a matter of having a young guy playing at that position. The three or four ballgames that we lost, the best team didn't win. But we're going to show up for the next two weeks and see if we can close this thing out."
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A Classic script change
November 22, 2004
By Nick Deriso, firstname.lastname@example.org
GRAMBLING- In 2002, Southern entered the Bayou Classic at 5-6 on the year, hoping for an upset to avoid a non-winning season.
Grambling State, meanwhile, was spotless in Southwestern Athletic Conference play and assured of another trip to the title game.
The result? An emotional 48-24 thrashing by Southern.
Two seasons and a coaching change later, GSU is trying on the costume for that spoiler role in New Orleans.
The Bayou Classic - pitting Southern (8-2 overall, 6-0 in the SWAC) and GSU (5-5, 2-4) - kicks off at 1 p.m. Saturday in the Louisiana Superdome.
"The shoe is on the other foot. But we're not talking about that," said interim GSU coach Melvin Spears. "We are just trying to concentrate on the fundamental things of what we do and try to combat mistakes. If you look at last year's game, it's really about what we didn't do on defense. The last team to score won the ball game, and that wasn't us."
In fact, Southern and GSU matched each other stride throughout 2003, arriving in New Orleans for a winner-take-all Western Division game that decided who advanced to the SWAC championship. The Jaguars deflated GSU's hopes for a record fourth straight try at the title, winning that offensive slugfest, 44-41.
Even in 2000, the first of those three straight championship years for the Tigers, GSU fell to Southern in New Orleans. Former coach Doug Williams, with Spears as offensive coordinator, left in February with a 1-5 mark as a head coach against Southern - and that lone win was back in 2001.
"The last couple of years, they've had this same spoiler feeling about us," said Spears. "It's certainly turned in a different direction. But the parity in our league has meant that teams like Southern have struggled even in their wins, and they have a good football team."
A win on Saturday assures Southern the division, sending the Jaguars back for a second straight SWAC title game on Dec. 11.
But even without those implications, this in-state rivalry game has its own unique majesty.
You have to take the records and put them over on the side," said Southern coach Pete Richardson, trying to win his second title in five seasons. "You are looking at a game that's been built to a great magnitude. This game is for the alumni and the students. A lot of individuals consider this more important than winning the championship."
GSU has slumped under the weight of injuries and inexperience in Spears' first season since Williams' departure. The Tigers, winless at home in 2004, must steal a Bayou Classic victory to avoid their first losing season since 1998.
"We were blessed for four years," said Spears. "To have the opportunity to have that run - with hardly anyone getting hurt - was great. Then all of a sudden, you fall on bad luck. It's just part of this business. But we hope to come of age here at the end of the year. Hopefully, you'll see the team that I know we have here."
There are more than bragging rights at stake, however.
Were Grambling State to pull off the upset, Southern would be tied with Arkansas-Pine Bluff in the West - and would have to await the outcome of the Golden Lions' game against Alabama State on Dec. 4 to find out its fate. (Because of a scheduling conflict, Southern and UAPB did not play in 2004.)
In other words, an average Grambling State team has an opportunity to do what some average Southern teams have done over and over recently: Ruin a principal rival's picture-perfect season.
"Everything goes in cycles," said Spears. "We're just going to go out and play like hell. We won't have anything to else to play for, except to represent Grambling."
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Their final hour to shine
November 23, 2004
By Nick Deriso, email@example.com
GRAMBLING - So much about this season was unique for Grambling State's senior class.
It began with Doug Williams leaving as coach and ends with this most unusual Bayou Classic, the first since 1999 where the graduating football players are assured of playing their final day in Black and Gold.
In 2000-02, GSU had already earned another game, with a trip to the Southwestern Athletic Conference championship game. In 2003, the Bayou Classic decided who would advance to the title match.
But this season's Tigers slipped to 5-5, and 2-4 in SWAC play, leaving the team's most veteran players with 60 short minutes of collegiate football left to play.
It's no surprise then that senior defender Kenneth Pettway has called this "my championship game."
Southern (8-2, 6-0) faces GSU at 1 p.m. Saturday in the Louisiana Superdome.
Other seniors include: offensive linemen Lance Wright and Darryl Rodgers; kicker Brian Morgan; defensive backs Jermaine Mills and Michael Daigre; fullback Michael O'Ree; linebackers John Petty (a Newellton product), David Robinson and Marcus Yanez (out of Bastrop); defensive linemen Aqua Etefia and Lennard Patton; and transfer receiver Antonio Hargro, among others.
Senior quarterback Bruce Eugene, lost for the season with a knee injury, has applied for a medical exemption to get his final year of eligibility back. Receiver Moses Harris redshirted after breaking his ankle in practice the week before GSU's opening game.
They say the finality of this contest ratchets up the pressure a notch or two - though the coaches are trying to guard against an end-of-the-world mentality.
"There's some pressure," said Daigre of finishing out his career against Southern. "Every game, I prepare the same. But we've got to have this one. It's Southern. It's a big rivalry for the alumni."
The seniors' determination has played out over the past few days of sloppy weather, when coaches have had to move practices inside the intramural building to avoid rainshowers. Several seniors have been conducting their own separate meetings to help the younger players appreciate the task at hand.
"They understand what's at stake," said GSU offensive coordinator Sammy White, the former all-SWAC receiver. "This is their last harrah, and the world is watching."
A focused Pettway assures: "When we get down on the field with Southern, we'll take care of business."
Interim GSU coach Melvin Spears reminds them, however, that the most important moment in these seniors' collegiate experience is graduation.
"We approach it from a football nature," said Spears. "But we also remind them that they came to Grambling not just to play football, but to prepare for the rest of your life. The seniors have done an outstanding job academically, so they will have a lot to build on. They will be ready to go into corporate America, and be leaders in their communities."
Still, for some, the game remains the pinnacle of their time at Grambling State.
"Since I was little, that's been the main thing that I wanted to do - to play in the Bayou Classic," said Mills, a Baton Rouge native. "It's like I'm coming back home. I've just got to enjoy those 60 minutes."
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Jags spotless in SWAC so far - despite obstacles
November 24, 2004
By Nick Deriso, firstname.lastname@example.org
GRAMBLING - They lost their quarterback and most of their receivers to graduation. They lost their running back and the SWAC Freshman of the Year on defense to academic problems.
What Coach Pete Richardson and Southern University didn't lose was momentum.
Winners of the Southwestern Athletic Conference championship in two of the past five seasons, the Jaguars have a chance to finish the season undefeated in league play with a victory in this week's Bayou Classic.
Southern (8-2 overall, 6-0 in the SWAC) - which must win to guarantee a trip to the SWAC title game - faces GSU (5-5, 2-4) at 1 p.m. Saturday in the Louisiana Superdome.
Should the Jaguars lose, they will be tied with Arkansas-Pine Bluff in the West and must wait for the Golden Lions' final contest to learn their fate.
"We always look forward to playing Southern," said interim GSU coach Melvin Spears, who can salvage a winning season with an upset in New Orleans. "Coach Richardson is one of the best coaches in America, not just in our conference. When you play the defending national champions, you'd better get ready for a dog fight."
Senior quarterback Thomas Ricks, tops in the SWAC for total offense, had little problem replacing Quincy Richard - who set a slew of Southern's passing records last season.
"We knew going into this year that he had the capability to do that," said Richardson. "It was just a matter of getting the playing time. He is an excellent quarterback, and has been in the system. He just didn't have a chance to play. Our concern was not Ricks, but the entourage around him. We lost all of our wide receivers, and it takes time to build that chemistry. That seemed to improve each week, and his confidence level then seemed to grow. As a result of that, he had an outstanding year."
In fact, a rebuilt receiving group has helped Southern to a No. 2 spot in total SWAC offense. After averaging a Division I-AA-best 40 points per game in 2003, this young team managed 32 per night this season.
The transition hasn't been quite so smooth on defense. Entering this game, the Jaguars are No. 9 in the 10-team conference against the pass, though they are No. 3 against the run.
"We are dealing with a lot of people who had not had the opportunity to play - our secondary, in particular," said Richardson. "It seemed like each game they played with a little more confidence. Of course, we played a schedule as good an anybody in Division I-AA football."
Southern opened against perennial power McNeese State, and later played South Dakota State - which ended its first season in I-AA at 6-5 overall.
"That McNeese game, they had to grow up fast," said Richardson. "Over the past couple of weeks, we've made some progress. Getting back to the championship will boil down to defense."
Despite the adversity, Southern has continued to win - primarily through a series of canny comebacks. Four of its wins have come on fourth-quarter rallies.
"They're going to be highly prepared. You know that," said Spears. "They are going to play hard. You've got to look under every rock in order to be successful. It's going to be a war."
Top target James Vernon, who has been out since Oct. 23 with a sprained right knee, returns for Saturday's game. But Southern will still have to rely on a revolving cast of running backs.
Gutty runner Steel Adams has a separated shoulder and is questionable, joining a beat-up group on the sidelines that includes leading rusher Gerald Holmes - who has missed most of six games with his own leg injury. Ricks has picked up most of the running yards and is now the team's leading rusher.
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GSU hopes for 2001 repeat
November 26, 2004
By Nick Deriso, email@example.com
GRAMBLING - On Nov. 24, 2001, Grambling State accomplished something it's only done once in 12 seasons: Win the Bayou Classic.
Much has changed since then, with the departure of coach Doug Williams to the NFL. But some things remain from that 30-20 victory over Southern.
Interim GSU coach Melvin Spears was the offensive coordinator back then. Current position coaches Calvin Spears and Vyron Brown also played that day.
Kicker Brian Morgan, now a senior captain, scored the Tigers' final points on a 40-yard field goal - on his way to Southwestern Athletic Conference freshman of the year honors.
"The guys we had then," Melvin Spears said, "they all weren't great athletes. But they were great football players. They loved to play and they played hard together. The significance of them winning, as opposed to the others, boiled down to heart. That team had some great leadership. You had some intangibles."
The win came after a thundering first quarter from Grambling State. In fact, the Tigers shredded the SWAC's second-rated defense with 27 points in the first 11 minutes and 21 seconds alone.
What does it take to get back to that glory?
"Hard work and dedication," said Brown, now running backs coach at his alma mater. "And a lot of belief."
Brown, after leading the team in rushing in 1998, was a change-of-pace runner and kick returner in 2001.
"Consistency," said first-year secondary coach Calvin Spears, who insists that beating Southern again in the Classic "is why I came back."
Senior quarterback Randy Hymes was making his first start in four games that day, having been replaced by Bruce Eugene in the first quarter against Texas Southern. But he dictated the outcome - leading GSU on four straight touchdown drives.
"The team that we had then was more a senior-type ballclub," Spears said. "They had gone through some adversity, but had only lost one ballgame down at Alabama State. We had some warriors then."
By the time this stunning first half was done, Hymes had completed 14-of-26 passes for 299 yards and three touchdowns, and rushed seven times for 86 yards and a touchdown. Grambling State held Southern to just 28 yards on offense before the bands played.
"You've got to do what you came to do," said Calvin Spears, who had seven tackles and an interception in the 2001 victory. "Once they get you into their mindset, playing their game, you are in trouble. Coach Richardson has a way of making games flow in his direction."
Not this time. Grambling State gained 544 yards of total offense on a team that was allowing just 285 per game. GSU's defense also played well, keeping Southern at 219 yards of total offense, creating two turnovers and registering three sacks.
Levi Washington led all GSU receivers with five catches for 128 yards. Hymes - now a wideout with the NFL's Baltimore Ravens - and Brad Hill both had 78 yards of rushing on the day.
Winning had an odd effect, Calvin Spears said: The local crowd, always deafening in its support for nearby Southern, turned as quiet as a church congregation.
"They always bring the Jaguar Nation," Spears said. "If we can keep the Nation at bay for a little while, our team can get some confidence."
It worked in 2001.
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Louisiana's Classic rivalry
November 27, 2004
By Nick Deriso, firstname.lastname@example.org
NEW ORLEANS - There will be big plays. Game-changing, tongue-wagging, momentum-swinging plays.
No lead is safe in Bayou Classic, perhaps Louisiana's signature college rivalry game. No expectation based on season records is valid. No easy prediction is broached.
"There is always a lot riding on it," said GSU offensive coordinator Sammy White, who never lost to Southern as a player under former coach Eddie Robinson in the 1970s. "You're going into a rivalry where most people don't care about the record. They just care about that game."
Kickoff of this annual grudge-match between Grambling State (5-5, 2-4 Southwestern Athletic Conference) and Southern (8-2, 6-0) is at 1 p.m. today at the Superdome."The magnitude," said Southern coach Pete Richardson, "has escalated to the point where you play for pride. Hopefully, you get to a point that you taper emotions and you don't dig a hole you can't get out of."
Taper emotions? Fat chance.
Take Southern's razor-thin 44-41 victory last season, which got off to a galloping start.
First, the Jaguars scored on a seven-play, 83-yard drive that senior quarterback Quincy Richard capped with a 3-yard touchdown run. Richard, in fact, would open the game by completing 15 consecutive passes.
So, GSU answered with a 71-yard touchdown pass from Bruce Eugene to Tim Abney on the Tigers' first play from scrimmage to tie the score.
Emotional, it was.
That's why keeping things in perspective becomes a coach's main goal.
"We're going to give up a couple of big plays," said first-year Tigers secondary coach Calvin Spears, a senior on the last GSU squad to beat Southern three years ago. "We know that. We have to take those jabs. If we keep jabbing right back, and don't get out of position, the knockout will come."
That certainly held true last season, where the final team to score was destined to win the 30th playing of the Bayou Classic. The Jaguars did.
Interim GSU coach Melvin Spears - the Tigers' offensive coordinator during the past six Bayou Classics - has watched film on that game continuously during the past two weeks. His updated game plan is deceptively simple.
"Whoever controls the ball and gives up the least amount of big plays is going to win," said Spears, who installed some inventive triple-option plays this week. "We're going to have to run the football a little more than normal. If you look at the game from last year, we threw the football 65 times. We'll have to be more balanced with a freshman quarterback in there."
Balanced? Fat chance - at least, typically.
Last season, these two teams combined for a staggering 1,136 yards of total offense, with 961 of it coming in the air.
But GSU doesn't have its senior quarterback from that game, after Eugene went down with a season-ending injury on opening day this season. In his place is flinty but sometimes-inconsistent Brandon Landers, a Carroll High product who is third in the SWAC for total offense but also leads the conference in interceptions.
"In the past, we've played against a very dynamic quarterback in Eugene," said Richardson, who is 10-1 against GSU. "He can make big plays with his arm and running the football, too. In the last couple of games, a lot of points have been scored and that's a tribute to the playmakers they have had. Anytime you have talented athletes, there's a chance for those plays to happen."
Without Eugene, and a string of other team leaders lost to injury, the Tigers have fallen out of title contention for the first time since 1999.
But GSU coaches say a quickly improving running game will lessen the burden on Landers - and limit the effectiveness of Southern's No. 2 offense. GSU has gained 456 of its 1,377 rushing yards on the season in its last two contests.
"It will keep their offense off the field," said running backs coach Vyron Brown. "We're going to come out and try to control the ball - and by the end of the game, if we've taken care of the little things, hopefully we will come out with a victory."
That kind of time-consuming, grinding tempo would limit scoring opportunities for Southern, which is led by senior quarterback Thomas Ricks, the SWAC's leader in offensive yards and touchdowns.
"That's our plan coming in, to control the game," said junior running back Ab Kuaan, the team's leading rusher the past two seasons. "If we do that, the sky's the limit."Special teams could play an important role. GSU led Division I-AA nationally in kickoff returns until the final week of its season, and has gained 24.71 per kick coming out of the bye week.
"When you look at a game of this magnitude, the first thing you think about is ball control," Spears said. "Ball control and field position. You can do it by running the football - or by doing an outstanding job on special teams."There is no margin for error.
This game seems to turn on the smallest of mistakes, even in a win: In 2001, the last time GSU beat Southern, the Jaguars mounted an impressive comeback late in the game before finally falling 30-20.That resurgence began during GSU quarterback Randy Hymes' first-half masterpiece, where he had a hand in four touchdowns. But Southern cornerback Codie Smith's second-quarter pick, returned 96 yards for a touchdown to make it 27-7 at the break, sparked a here-we-go-again rally by the Jaguars - even though they fell short.
In the three years before that victory, Grambling State led Southern at halftime each time, only to lose in the end. Most agonizing was 1999, when GSU held a 31-10 advantage, only to watch Southern score 27 unanswered second-half points for a 37-31 win.Last season, Eugene was reduced to tears when a final, furious fourth-quarter drive came up short.
"They're going to take it personally, regardless," said Melvin Spears, "because of all the hype and the excitement surrounding the game. When you have this kind of camaraderie, both guys want bragging rights. Whatever goes on, we just try to get them to approach it like any other game."Any other game? Fat chance.
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November 28, 2004By Nick Deriso, email@example.com
NEW ORLEANS - What a rush.A bruising ground game earned Grambling State a winning season - and redeemed an awful 1-12 run against Southern - at Saturday's 31st Bayou Classic.
Four rushers combined for 292 yards as GSU beat the Jaguars 24-13. The Tigers finished 6-5 on the year, and altered Southern's postseason plans.At 8-3, the Jaguars now must await the outcome of Arkansas-Pine Bluff's Dec. 4 contest against Alabama State, which will determine if the Jaguars advance to the Southwestern Athletic Conference title game.
"We wanted that winning season," said interim GSU coach Melvin Spears, "and it came down to the Bayou Classic. I thought that was outstanding."Grambling State used an effective running game to keep the contest just out of reach, as top rusher Ab Kuuan had an average of seven yards per carry.
"I knew if our guys put forth the effort, and stayed focused," said Spears, "we could run the ball on Southern."And how.
Kuuan finished with 126 yards on 18 carries before a crowd of 68,911 at the Louisiana Superdome - and many more on NBC's national television broadcast. Three rushing touchdowns gave Kuaan back-to-back 10 touchdown seasons and tied his single-game best.The brilliance of that ground game from Kuuan, along with sophomore fullback Ruben Mayes, meant GSU freshman quarterback Brandon Landers would attempt just 13 passes.
"I've just got to tip my hat to the offensive line," said Kuuan, who was named player of the game. "They knew we were going to come in and run the ball. We had two weeks to prepare and that meant we all had fresh legs coming in. Thinking about this win sends chills down my spine."But that run-oriented approach led to a low-scoring first half. One season after these two teams combined for 32 first-half points - and 85 at the end - GSU and Southern put up just nine at the break. Only 21 second-half points kept this from becoming the lowest scoring Bayou Classic ever. The record is Southern's 10-3 victory in 1988.
That was just what Spears wanted.But the Tigers gave up a disputed 48-yard touchdown reception as time expired on the half to push Southern ahead for the first time on Saturday. Spears was still arguing with the officials after the teams had gone to the locker rooms.
Replays seemed to indicate that junior Emile Bryant's knee hit the ground at the GSU 1, but the play stood. The extra-point kick failed, leaving the score at 6-3 at the half.That was not what Spears wanted - because the Southern touchdown signaled a return to the usual momentum-shifting mood swings so closely associated with this 53-year-old rivalry.
SU retook the lead on a seven-play, 68-yard drive to open the second half, scoring on a fourth-and-one with a 10-yard rush by Kuuan. Senior Brian Morgan's kick made it 10-6.But as the third quarter drew to a close, Southern running back Devin Herbert's 2-yard TD run capped an eight-play, 41-yard drive. The Jaguars led again, 13-10.
Kuuan answered with a 1-yard scoring blast at the top of the fourth quarter. Morgan's kick brought the score to 17-13.SU then made a critical stop, as senior defender Kenneth Pettway blocked a long field-goal attempt that was then recovered on the Southern 40-yard-line by GSU sophomore Greg Fassitt.
The Tigers' ensuing scoring drive, again without a single pass, ended on a diving run by Kuuan to seal the win."I knew I had to come in and stick with the game plan," said Landers - who, after leading the SWAC in picks this season, was unblemished on Saturday. "I used to watch this game on TV. To be on the field for such a great win for this institution is a great feeling."
Landers wasn't alone. The Tigers completed their first game of the season without a turnover."We felt like if we didn't turn the ball over," said GSU offensive coordinator Sammy White, "we'd have a great chance to win. Then, we'd just keep running the ball to keep them off balance."
Southern quarterback Thomas Ricks, who was chosen SWAC offensive player of the week five times this season, did his best to spark Southern - passing for 176 yards and a touchdown and leading Jaguar rushers with 93 yards.But with GSU holding onto the ball for more than 36 minutes, it wasn't enough.
"They had two big backs, and a huge line. They just kept beating on us," said Southern coach Pete Richardson, whose team entered the game at No. 20 in Division I-AA by ESPN/USA Today. "They really beat us up."Grambling State revealed its all-run motives in its first drive, relying on Kuuan and Mayes to get to the Southern 29-yard line. But GSU had to settle for a field goal try after Landers was sacked on third down, and Morgan missed.
"I don't know if it was a mess-up with the hold or what, but it just didn't come out right," said Morgan, who later connected on another 39-yarder in the second quarter. "I didn't have the greatest game. But today, it didn't matter."GSU defensive end Jason Hatcher, a Jena product, blocked a 47-yard attempt by Breck Ackley with 20 seconds left in the first quarter, to keep the game scoreless.
On a fourth-and-nine, Kuaan gained 32 yards to the Southern 25 on a fake punt early in the second quarter. Morgan then scored the game's first points.There were moments when the game looked like it might turn in Southern's favor.
As returner Gabe Wallace moved into GSU territory on a second-quarter punt return, junior Matt Duhe knocked the ball loose. Kuaan recovered at the GSU 39.But then a delay-of-game penalty pushed the Tigers back to midfield. GSU went for it consecutive fourth downs after an off-side penalty, but came away with no points.
Flags, in fact, fell like rainstorms - with 13 for 79 yards in the first half alone. Both teams - ranked No. 1 and 2 in the conference for penalties - would eventually combine for 121 yards on fouls.But GSU continued its relentless, slow assault.
"It feels so, so good," said Farmerville sophomore linebacker Dimitri Carr, as players attempted to douse defensive coordinator Luther Palmer with a cooler of ice water. "I can't believe I've got two more!"
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Tigers help Spears with a little job security
November 28, 2004NEW ORLEANS - He may have saved his job. He knew that.
Interim coach Melvin Spears was looking at a losing season, not the best item to have atop your resume when Grambling State begins a national search for a permanent replacement for Doug Williams this month.School officials have said he will be a part of that interview process. But how much weight would they give to a candidate with a losing record?
Or one who dropped GSU's signature rivalry game - and on national television?"We've gone through some things all year," said Spears. "Trials and tribulations. I told them they would have to play with enthusiasm to win, with discipline - and for 60 minutes."
It would take all that, and more.GSU hadn't strung together consecutive wins since beating Bethune-Cookman, Prairie View and Mississippi Valley beginning in Week 3.
It would mean turning back a rising tide of losses to Southern. GSU led the all-time Bayou Classic series 13-6 when Southern began its recent dominance. Since 1993, the Tigers had won just once, the 30-20 victory in 2001 with Spears as offensive coordinator."See this monkey?" senior linebacker Marcus Yanez jubilantly asked a group of his teammates as the game wound down. "Take it off! Take this monkey off my back!"
It would also involve a most unusual strategy for this game.A year after helping compile a game-day stat of nearly 1,000 yards in the air, GSU would attempt only 13 passing plays. But rushing touchdowns - even coming from a pass-first ex-coordinator like Spears - still count on the scoreboard.
His canny patience in this contest - refusing to start flinging it downfield, even when Southern mounted small comeback bids - made this Spears' crowning achievement as an interim coach."I think I had an outstanding football team out there today," said Spears. "I intend to be back at Grambling, until somebody tells me any differently."
The implications of this win were both far reaching - the, you know, job interview - and immediate."We're going to celebrate this," said senior defender Kenneth Pettway, reveling in the moment. "My senior year, to go out with a win, to have a winning season, and win the Bayou Classic? I love it!"
Spears clearly did, too. He stopped at midfield, after receiving the Bayou Classic trophy, for a picture with his children. He looked around one last time at the Superdome, before ducking into the locker room for an emotional talk with the players - who had given him a vote of confidence after Williams' sudden departure in February."We had an opportunity to compete against (Southern) Coach Pete Richardson - who I think is one of the best coaches in the America," said Spears. "We had to bring our 'A' game."
GSU controlled the clock, and the crowd, for much of the first half - holding the ball for more than 18 minutes and leading 3-0 as time drained away on the first half.But with four seconds left, and only a single play left to try, and everyone from Bourbon Street to Esplanade knowing that the long ball was coming, Southern quarterback Thomas Ricks launched a 48-yard pass to Emile Bryant.
Bryant came down in between a trio of GSU defenders, and appeared to go down on the 1-yard line - a point Spears unsuccessfully argued - but was given the touchdown.The play should have looked familiar from SWAC game tapes.
It was remarkably similar to the dagger that SU used to finish off a stunned Alabama State earlier in the year, and set up the go-ahead score against Alabama A&M - just two of a dizzying number of late comebacks for this flawed but charmed Southern team.There ensued then the usual emotional tug-of-war, with three lead changes in the second half.
Grambling State, at a level 5-5 going into Saturday's game, should be used to that.
"I had to keep the staff, and everybody around me, in a positive attitude," said Spears. "That was our strength. That's what we came from."In the end, Grambling State's bruising running backs simply overwhelmed the smaller Southern line, gaining a season high in rushing yards. And the defense held when it had to.
What should have also looked familiar - the Cinderella ending for Southern - never materialized.
But there might just be one for Spears now.
"The president is happy, the alums are happy, my cousins are happy," said Spears, who looked pretty darned happy, too."We're going to enjoy this next few hours and then next week, I'll sit down and talk to Dr. (Horace A.) Judson and find out what direction they want to go. I expect to be at Grambling."
Here's how you know that's no hyperbole: Spears was making plans after the game to hit the recruiting trail for next year's roster."We've got a number of guys, blue-chip guys, that are thinking about coming to Grambling," said Spears, smiling widely.
Some coaches, too.But Spears was talking like a man who may have just saved his job. He knew that, too.
NICK DERISO, named columnist of the year this summer by the Louisiana Sports Writers Association, is sports editor at The News-Star, 411 N. Fourth St., Monroe, La., 71201. Contact him at (318) 362-0233 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.