Friday, February 16, 2007

Bayou Classic 2006

Classic makes welcome return to New Orleans
In-state SWAC rivals played in Houston last year after Katrina
November 20, 2006
By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING — A year away has taught Grambling State's football team just what it means to miss New Orleans.

The Bayou Classic returns to the Superdome this week after being moved to Houston's Reliant Stadium last season in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. That was the first time in 33 years that the event has been played outside of New Orleans.

"Just going back after what has happened, back to the place where the Bayou Classic started, that's big," said sophomore Monroe quarterback Brandon Landers, who is expected to share time with fellow sophomore Larry Kerlegan. "Houston was a great place to have the game, but New Orleans, it just has a special feel."

Kickoff for the Bayou Classic, which is nationally televised on NBC, is set for 1 p.m. Saturday.
The traditional job and college fair begins on Friday at the Marriott Hotel, 555 Canal St., in New Orleans. The Battle of the Bands and Greek Show also returns to the Superdome, with a start time of 7 p.m. Friday. The indoor fan festival that precedes kickoff is at 10 a.m. Saturday.

This flurry of tourism — an average of 200,000 fans have poured into New Orleans after Thanksgiving in years past — is another signpost in the recovery of a hurricane-besieged city.

Officials heralded the game's return in a news conference held late last month, belated recognition for an event that's had a sometimes-rocky relationship with the state.

Louisiana "cannot afford to let the game and its financial impact leave the state," Gov. Kathleen Blanco said, while announcing Classic's return. "In previous years, this event has pumped some $30 million into our economy, providing direct support into the New Orleans region. ... The storms were strong, but they can't stop us, and they can't stop the State Farm Bayou Classic."

More than 20 cities submitted bids in 2005 to play host the game, including Shreveport. But school officials settled on Houston, saying its facility was better suited in the event of inclement weather — prescient in that last year's game day dawned cold and rainy.

The city had also taken in thousands of evacuees, though that didn't translate in ticket sales.

Houston's game drew 53,214, second smallest ever behind only 1984. The Bayou Classic had averaged more than 70,000 in the previous five seasons at the Superdome.

Ironically, Houston was perhaps the most serious alternative site considered by school officials when the 10-year contract with New Orleans went through contentious renegotiation in 2002.
Ultimately, Grambling and Southern signed a new three-year deal that included some reduced fees and remained at the Superdome — at least until Katrina intervened. That contract was extended just last week for another season.

Neither team has had much to brag about so far this year, with Southern arriving at 4-6 on the year and Grambling at 3-6. That could be why both coaches have focused on the idea of homecoming as much as football in pre-game interviews so far.

"It's a chance to go back home, and that's so important," said GSU coach Melvin Spears, who has won the last two Classics. "We hope our fans have fun supporting the game, but also the reconstruction of New Orleans."

Pete Richardson, who had opened his career at Southern by stringing together eight consecutive Classic victories, said: "Going back to New Orleans has a different ambience for our game. Houston did an outstanding job, but people are excited about going back to New Orleans."

Still, winning this game brings its own bragging rights — and Grambling has won three out of the last five Bayou Classics, including the last two in a row.

More recent winning streaks aside, however, GSU holds just a one-game edge, 27-26, in this knotted-up rivalry, which actually dates back to 1933.

The two teams are tied at 16-16 since moving the event to a neutral site in New Orleans.

That's why emotions still percolate around this contest, no matter the teams' record.

"Being back in New Orleans," said senior Farmerville linebacker Dimitri Carr, "only adds to this game."

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GSU returns to prepare for Southern with new energy
November 15, 2006
By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING — When Grambling's first practice in four days was over, coach Melvin Spears couldn't help himself.

"Good practice!" he said, as the team encircled him on Tuesday night.

Senior running back Ab Kuuan, still stoked from a goal-line play for a touchdown moments before, began hopping up and down.

"Great practice!" Kuuan corrected, in a good-natured way.

In the midst of an unprecedented 20-day layoff before the Southern game, GSU had sat idle since last week, and the time away seemed to energize the group — which was last seen during a flat homecoming performance where Alabama State scored 22 unanswered points to win.

"A couple of days off, it gave us time to clear our heads," said senior Farmerville linebacker Dimitri Carr. "It gives us a chance to focus on football now. I know it did for me."

Uptempo passing plays, many with the addition of senior punt returner Landry Carter in trips formation, were run by both Brandon Landers and Larry Kerlegan. Each looked sharp.

"We had a chance to get our minds straight, with the time off," Landers said.

Grambling began practice working on inside running plays, reminiscent of the bye week regimen before its emotional 2004 Bayou Classic win, with senior fullback Ruben Mayes blowing open holes for Kuuan.

Whoops and shouts of encouragement echoed around Robinson Stadium, where the team practiced, and it became contagious, said Landers, the SWAC's leading passer.

Spears seemed energized by their enthusiasm, and spoke from the heart afterward.

"Nobody can stop us when we put forth the effort," he said. "Encourage each other. You are all the other guy has got."

Senior receiver Henry Tolbert, apparently recovered from some lingering maladies, ran with the first team, though junior Tim Abney was still sidelined with an ankle problem. Spears said all the other regular starters would be ready to play on Nov. 25, when GSU plays its traditional Thanksgiving weekend matchup on national television.

Grambling stands at 3-6 on the year, and is on a two-game losing streak — both to teams with losing records. This will be the first time ever that both GSU and Southern will enter the Bayou Classic with losing records.

Still, Carr said Tuesday's practice gives him hope of continuing a streak over Southern than now stands at two games.

"I haven't had this much fun in a long time," said Carr, third on the team with 61 tackles. "That's what's been missing this year."

Classic will stay for another year
Grambling and Southern have extended a 2002 contract to play the Bayou Classic in New Orleans for another year.

Southern signed off on the extension on Friday, and Grambling's Bayou Classic committee followed on Tuesday, said member Douglas Porter.

The original agreement meant the Bayou Classic, held in New Orleans since 1974, would remain at the Superdome for three years, with an option for a fourth.

Last year's contest was temporarily moved to Houston, a city that made a formal bid for the game in 2002, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina but has subsequently returned to Louisiana. The 2006 Bayou Classic is set for 1 p.m. Nov. 25.

Herb Simmons, Grambling's Bayou Classic coordinator in '02, said then that a new rate to rent the Superdome was set at just under $50,000, compared to $300,000 for previous years.

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Quick slants: Grambling
November 7, 2006
By Nick Deriso
GSU vs. Southern, 1 p.m. Nov. 25, Bayou Classic in New Orleans.

Senior Grambling running back Ab Kuuan has had trouble moving the ball behind a remade offensive line that's never found its rhythm.

His numbers show just how much trouble: Through nine games, Kuuan has gained only 481 yards. At this point last year, he'd already run for 649 — despite missing two games with an ankle injury.

At his current rate, Kuuan will finish the season with 587 yards, a far cry from the 1,200-yard season members of the offense openly talked about during the preseason — and his worst total since 2003.

Kuuan had steadily increased his output since taking over as the starter that season, rushing for 423 yards in '03, then 637 in 2004 and finally 891 yards last season.

His best night so far has been a 113-yard night against Prairie View, but that has been Kuuan's only time past the century mark. Those numbers were bolstered by a 61-yard scoring run.

Grambling was shut out in the second half last week against Alabama State for just the second time in five seasons.

The Tigers had most recently failed to score any points in the final two periods in a 28-10 win against Texas Southern in 2004. GSU was also blanked against I-A San Jose State in 2003, losing 29-0.

Grambling only scored three points in the second half against Southern in the 2001 Bayou Classic, though it held on for a 30-20 win under former coach Doug Williams.

1: Grambling's rank in SWAC for scoring, passing and total offense
18,652: Average attendance at GSU's home games, No. 5 in I-AA
16: Passing TDs by Grambling's Brandon Landers, tops in the SWAC

With no games scheduled for three weeks, Grambling is settling in for a long winter's nap.

The Tigers' next game is actually not until Nov. 25, when they take on Southern at the Bayou Classic in New Orleans.

This scheduling hiccup, a result of moving games around to accommodate non-conference opponents, provides the team a chance to recuperate from some lingering injuries.

"We hope to use this time to get some guys back," Grambling coach Melvin Spears said. "The layoff will give them an opportunity to get their legs back under them."

It also provides the coaches a chance to consider next season. GSU will practice today through Thursday, then the staff will begin a recruiting run, Spears said.

Grambling must replace at least five returning senior starters on offense and four on defense. Oddly enough, many of those veteran players are the ones in need of time to heal up.

Utility lineman Jamar Dorsey went down last week with a sprain, missing the balance of an eventual rout by Alabama State. Cornerback Greg Fassitt was also in street clothes by the end of the game.

Receivers Henry Tolbert and Tim Abney have both tried to play in recent weeks, but been unable to go — the result of a non-football related problem and an ankle sprain, respectively.
Spears said he hopes to get all of them back over the 20-day layover between dates.

This week, sitting in front of the Bayou Classic bye, has been filled over the past five seasons with non-conference opponents like Morris Brown, Savannah State and Concordia. This year, Grambling played the University of Houston in Week 3.

After Southern, GSU finishes with a final Southwestern Athletic Conference game against Alcorn State at home. That contest was originally scheduled as the season opener, but was moved to the back of the schedule to accommodate a non-conference date in Birmingham, Ala., against MEAC champion Hampton.

"It's unusual with respect to Alcorn State, to play so late," Spears said. "Traditionally, there aren't any more games after the Bayou Classic."

Until last year, anyway. Alcorn moved its home game to the end of the year in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Moving the Alcorn contest to Dec. 2 means Grambling will be play a regular-season game two weeks after six of the league's 10 teams have already finished their schedule. Mississippi Valley will have been done for a month.

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Throw the records out for this Classic? Gladly
November 21, 2006
By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING — This is a Bayou Classic, perhaps, that only a diehard fan would enjoy.

Grambling enters the contest with just three wins, having put together the first losing season since former coach Doug Williams' rebuilding project began in 1998.

Southern, which once boasted a run of 11 straight winning seasons under Pete Richardson, has managed only four wins in 2006 — and faces the prospect of a second consecutive losing campaign.

The response from GSU's players: So what?

There still burns inside of them that desire to beat Southern, as evidenced by up-tempo, emotional practices over the past two weeks.

"Throw the records out the door," said senior fullback Ruben Mayes, who made a game-changing touchdown reception in last year's 50-35 win over Southern. "Our guys are ready to play, no matter how the season has gone."

It's gone terribly.

Never before, in fact, have these two teams met in a Bayou Classic with both sporting losing records.

That makes Saturday something of a litmus test for a fan base used to having something to play for.

"You have fair-weather fans on both sides," GSU coach Melvin Spears admits, "but it's all about the true Jaguars and the true Tigers that are going to stand up and come down. We're going to have a great time."

Not to say there weren't times when one or the other struggled.

Southern was 5-6 in 2003, and needed a win over Grambling to finish 6-6 on the year. GSU, however, had already collected 10 victories. Both finished with losing campaigns in 1991, but Grambling actually entered the Classic at 5-5.

More often than not, however, one or the other of these programs was on a roll.

Between them, GSU and Southern have won eight of the last nine Southwestern Athletic Conference crowns — and 17 titles over the 32 previous times the Bayou Classic has been held.
Grambling slumped to consecutive losing records in 1995-98, but that was during a period of unprecedented dominance for its in-state rival, as Richardson won the SWAC in 1997-98. After beating Grambling in 2003, Southern went on to take the league title.

Not this year. For the first time since its 1999 inception, neither GSU nor Southern will represent the Western Division in the SWAC Championship Game.

"It's always a big challenge when you have an opportunity to play in the Bayou Classic, because it means so much to both institutions," said Southern coach Pete Richardson. "Both institutions are struggling, but I think our fans are excited about it — and our players understand that we want to finish up strong."

The best either team can hope for is a season-ending mark of 5-6. GSU has two more games, with a home contest against Alcorn still to come. This is Southern's final date in 2006.
Both programs will likely look back with more than a little sense of wonder about what went wrong.

Southern, picked in the league's preseason voting to win the Western Division, lost four games by a touchdown or less — including two in overtime. So did GSU, which hit a skid after winning the conference crown just a year ago.

"It's been a rough season," said junior Grambling receiver Clyde Edwards, who had a career day in this game last year — piling up 161 yards and three touchdowns. "The Bayou Classic is our last opportunity to get this bitter taste out of our mouths."

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Will GSU return to run in Classic?
2004 game in New Orleans deviated from usual high-scoring shootouts
November 22, 2006
By Nick Deriso
Forgive the poor soul who came in thinking the 2004 Bayou Classic was going to be a pass-happy scoring bonanza.

After all, that's nearly become the template for this game. Just a season before, Grambling and Southern had combined for a staggering 1,136 yards of total offense, with 961 of it coming in the air.

Not in 2004, the last time the Classic was played in New Orleans.

Grambling, with true freshman Brandon Landers subbing for the injured quarterback Bruce Eugene, instead unleashed a brutal ground attack — chewing up yards, the clock and, finally, Southern. GSU won 24-13, in one of the lowest scoring Classics ever.

How much that resembles this year's Bayou Classic, with Landers again under center and the game making a triumphal return to New Orleans, remains to be seen.

But it certainly worked last time.

Back in 2004, Landers only attempted 13 passes — with his longest, a 19-yarder, going to fellow freshman Clyde Edwards — but beamed with open-hearted joy while running back Ab Kuaan hoisted the MVP trophy.

"Getting a chance to go to the Dome in 2004 and play was a dream come true," Landers says these days. "That was the biggest game of my career."

Southern quarterback Thomas Ricks, chosen SWAC offensive player of the week five times that season, did his best to spark his team — passing for 176 yards and a touchdown and leading all Jaguar rushers with 93 yards.

But GSU held onto the ball for more than 36 minutes while four rushers combined for 292 yards.
Kuuan accounted for 126 of those yards on 18 carries. His three rushing touchdowns gave Kuaan back-to-back 10 touchdown seasons and tied his single-game best.

That, Southern coach Pete Richardson insists, was a long time ago.

Now 0-2 against Spears in the Classic, Richardson has no doubt noted Kuuan, who averaged more than 100 yards rushing for the final month of 2004, is gaining just 53 a night this season.

Grambling enters this year's game looking more like the 2005 edition, leading the conference in passing and scoring just as it did after Eugene returned with a medical redshirt.

"I'm concerned about Brandon Landers," Richardson insists. "They spread the ball around."

But sticking with the familiar downfield approach hasn't led to the same success without Eugene.

Last year, GSU went undefeated in league play, including a 50-35 win over Southern in Houston. Using a quarterbacking tandem of Landers and fellow redshirt sophomore Larry Kerlegan, Grambling has stumbled to 3-6 - with no hope even for a winning season.

That's got some fans hoping this homecoming to New Orleans will mean a return to a run-first look.

It worked, they remind, last time.

"This year, it will be more of a combination, a more balanced attack," Spears said. "Our offense is one that is based on what they give us. Certainly, we'd like to run the ball — but if they put nine men in the box, trying to stop Ab Kuuan, we will have recognize that formation and adjust."

As he did in 2004, Edwards remains Landers' favorite target. He leads Grambling in catches, yards and touchdowns.

"Brandon and I have worked well together from the beginning," Edwards said. "We certainly would like to continue doing that. The Bayou Classic is always a big game. Whether we pass it or run it, we just need the win."

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Southern stumbled after series of '06 mishaps
November 23, 2006
By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING — Southern needed a week off, quite literally, to lick its wounds.

There's something that hurts worse than a second-ever losing record for the Jaguars under 13th-year coach Pete Richardson.

It's losing more than a dozen players to injury over the course of this year.

Two quarterbacks have fallen. And tacklers? By the bushel — including four before last week's dismal blowout to Arkansas-Pine Bluff alone. The Jags even had an offensive guard go down ... with a finger infection.


"It's been a funny year for us," Richardson said. "Every game, it seems like we lost somebody."

The result: Southern is 4-6, just the third time Richardson has entered the Bayou Classic with a losing record — and only the fourth for the Jaguars in 20 seasons.

They face a similarly struggling Grambling, with kickoff set for 1 p.m. Saturday at the Superdome in New Orleans.

"This is a rivalry, even if we are 3-6 and they are 4-6," said redshirt GSU sophomore Larry Kerlegan, who has been sharing time with quarterback Brandon Landers. "We both have something to prove."

For the Jaguars, it just might be whether they can get through it without running ruts in the Dome turf with a trainer's cart.

Quarterback J.C. Lewis, the Jaguars' starter as the season began, missed three contests and parts of two others with a concussion and then an injured throwing arm. His replacement, C.J. Byrd, also suffered an arm injury.

Offensive guard Tremaine Johnson had a bum ankle. Cornerback Michael Williams also had an ankle thing. For linebacker Johnathan Malveaux, it was a shoulder.

Linebacker Keidrick Bailey, a key element in Richardson's defensive scheme, was lost for nearly a month with an ankle problem, as well. Defensive end Lionel Howard? Ankle, too.

That dramatically changed the Jaguars' season. Luckily, a bye week proceeds their nationally televised in-state rivalry game against Grambling.

"Defensively, we have to get some people back, specifically on the outside," Richardson said. "The week of rest helped us out a great deal."

As Southern has been decimated by injury, the inexperienced replacements who followed have made a series of stunning errors — and often at moments when the game is on the line.

Southern had no turnovers through its first seven quarters, then bottomed out with 32 as injuries set in over the rest of the season. The Jaguars — who never gave the ball up against Bethune-Cookman and Alabama State — are now No. 8 in the 10-team league for turnover margin, at minus-7.

Still, Richardson has produced another squad that focuses on the little things: His is the SWAC's least penalized team, and it's terrific on special teams — leading the league in punting and field goal percentage.

For all of its uncertainty under center, Southern has contended for much of the season — losing five games by a touchdown or less, and two in overtime.

No. 3 quarterback Bryant Lee, though prone to turnovers as a redshirt freshman, is a shifty threat on the ground. Talented Southern receiver Gerard Landry is catching what this trio is throwing, sitting at No. 2 in the SWAC.

"They've changed a lot, because of personnel reasons," GSU coach Melvin Spears said. "They are not are wide open as usual. They have changed a whole lot. Now, you can look for the quarterback to run on a number of different occasions. We've just got to come in and take what they give us."

Grambling's No. 1 pass offense will tangle with the league's No. 1 pass defense. Southern has allowed just 136 yards per game so far this season — compared with Grambling's 164, which ranks No. 5 in the SWAC.

Neither team has had much success running the ball, with Southern just one spot above Grambling at No. 8 in the SWAC with 109 yards on the ground per night.

Southern is just as bad against the run, as well. The Jags have given up 166 yards a number to rank one spot above Grambling, as well.

Richardson, for his part, understands what's at stake with this game. He signed a new contract just before the 2004 season, and has heard increasing rumblings amongst Southern supporters after losing the next two Classics in a row.

"We are inconsistent at the present time, and part of it's because of injuries. We just have to get ready and finish up strong," Richardson said. "It's been a very disappointing season for both teams, but we are excited about this game. It means more for some people than winning the championship."

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For Bayou Classic fans, no place like home
November 25, 2006
By Nick Deriso
NEW ORLEANS — Bayou Classic fans said a homecoming for their game confirms the budding recovery of storm-ravaged New Orleans.

"It's more than just the return of a football game — it's a revival, a rebirth of sorts," said Grambling fan Donovan Simmons of Lafayette. "Hurricane Katrina did not kill our Crescent City. It was a serious setback, but the return of the classic signals the major comeback for Louisiana's crown jewel."

Kickoff for the Bayou Classic is at 1 p.m. today at the Louisiana Superdome. The game will be broadcast live nationally on NBC.

Supporters of both Grambling and Southern could be found milling about the refurbished Superdome on this cool Friday night, as diehards began lining up for the Battle of the Bands.

"I don't care if we lose!" said Grambling fan Sherry Williams of Houston, point-
ing to her Tigers T-shirt. "I'll be right back down here tomorrow night just like this!"

Others haggled, recalling old times, at kiosk after kiosk along Poydras in front of the Dome. There were dozens more touring the historic streets of the French Quarter, which went largely untouched by Hurricane Katrina.

The same couldn't be said for the Superdome, which had to undergo extensive renovation after being used as a shelter for storm evacuees. The Bayou Classic, after being held 31 consecutive times in New Orleans, was played at Houston's Reliant Stadium in 2005 while the work continued.

"Last year, I went to Houston, and it wasn't the same," said Louis Wright of Grambling. "Here, you walk around. There, you're in traffic. There's nothing like the Crescent City."

Even something so routine as the pre-game walk-through at the stadium turned into an emotional experience.

"I walked into that Dome and I just had chill bumps all over," said GSU coach Melvin Spears. "They have done an outstanding job of putting it back together. Every time I go to New Orleans I get the same feeling. I roll in and all of a sudden the Superdome pops up out of the middle of the city, it's just one of those things. The dome is like no other place, and we play all over the world. It has this aura, like being at home."

A group congregated at the team hotel Friday at the annual Legends' Affair, where former Grambling receiver Trumaine Johnson was among those honored.

While fans thanked Houston for its hospitality last season, many said there is simply no place like home.

"The tradition, passion and pageantry of this spectacular weekend is unparalleled — and as we experienced in Houston last year, it cannot be duplicated," Simmons said. "The Bayou Classic belongs in New Orleans."

Official museum kickoff
The official kickoff announcement of a national fundraising campaign for the Eddie G. Robinson Museum will be held at 10 a.m. today at New Orleans' Astor Crowne Plaza in conjunction with the Bayou Classic's Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus jazz brunch event.

"The only reason we get the opportunity to be featured in a game like this is because of people like Eddie Rob, who did it better than anybody else," said GSU coach Melvin Spears.

Scheduled speakers include Gov. Kathleen Blanco, Secretary of State Jay Dardenne, state Rep. Rick Gallot, members of the Robinson family, Grambling State University officials and New Orleans native and original Saturday Night Live cast member Garrett Morris.

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Grambling still looking to replace former leaders
November 24, 2006
By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING — Grambling only lost a handful of starters in the off-season, but that was enough to shake up its delicate formula for winning.

Grambling coach Melvin Spears admitted as much when — while talking recently about departed players like quarterback Bruce Eugene, defensive end Jason Hatcher and safety Jermaine Mills — he referred to them as the "heart and soul" of his team.

Their graduation left Grambling with plenty of remarkable athletes, but without an emotional center. That in turn played a decisive role in GSU's disappointing 3-6 mark coming into Saturday's Bayou Classic.

Kickoff against Southern is set for 1 p.m. The game will be broadcast nationally on NBC.
As much as Spears' pre-season optimism about a return to the Southwestern Athletic Conference championship game seemed justified when GSU flashed bursts of athletic brilliance in 2006, they too often were followed by game-turning mental errors.

Four of those six losses were by five points or less.

One game was lost on a special teams mishap, another on an over-aggressive play call. One game ended on a badly thrown incompletion, another on a fumble.

"It's been a combination of things," said junior receiver Clyde Edwards, a terrific, though quiet, performer. "We've just made some big mistakes at key moments."

Add to that a questionable coaching decision to stay with a vertical offensive scheme, despite the switch under center, and the die was cast for this season of disappointment in Grambling.

A team last seen at the Bayou Classic in the midst of an 11-1 coronation as the conference champion is now assured a losing season — no matter what happens in its remaining two contests.

"I think our team has progressed," Spears said. "But anytime you uproot the chemistry of the football team, it takes a little time to gel. We are looking forward to coming down (to New Orleans) and leaving it all on the field."

That would be in stark contrast to its most recent second half of football, when Grambling disappeared late in its own homecoming game against Alabama State — falling 35-16 after giving up 22 unanswered points over the third and fourth quarters.

"It's my senior year, so I don't want to go out like that," said Farmerville linebacker Dimitri Carr. "Besides, this is my last Bayou Classic. You can't lose that one."

Spears calls the ASU collapse an aberration, noting that Grambling's four other Division I-AA losses came by a total of two touchdowns. That includes margins of one to Hampton, three to Alabama A&M and five to both UAPB and Texas Southern.

He promised a revitalized effort against Southern, and that has certainly characterized the practice sessions leading up to the eve of Grambling's biggest rivalry game.

The reason: For all the jaw-dropping turns the games themselves often take, no SWAC opponent has been a steadier opponent than Southern.

The overall Bayou Classic series record is 16-16. No other league foe has a non-losing record against Grambling.

That the event returns to New Orleans, after a year spent at Houston in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, only adds to the pitched emotions.

"You are on the big stage, the only show in town," Spears said. "With NBC, millions of folks have an opportunity to watch as you showcase your brand of football in front of the world. We live for it every single year, because we love the pageantry and all the things that go with it."

Even if there is a tinge of regret attached to this one, which pits two losing teams for the first time ever.

The players say, despite Grambling's record, there is still much to play for: Pride of ownership and, just maybe, an opportunity to turn things around next season.

"This game determines how the off-season goes," said redshirt sophomore Larry Kerlegan, who has shared time at quarterback all year with Brandon Landers. "I want to win these two, then come back and win the starter's job in the spring."

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November 25, 2006

Southern and Grambling, since the Bayou Classic's first playing in 1974, have combined for 19 Southwestern Athletic Conference titles and 14 black college national titles. One or the other has appeared in each of the previous seven SWAC championship games.

Yet they arrive for the first time in Classic history with a pair of losing records — and no chance to represent the Western Division.

Grambling has won the last two Bayou Classics in a row, and three of the last five, to send the once-invincible Pete Richardson into a tailspin at Southern.

Since Melvin Spears took over at GSU, the Jaguars have been beaten by a combined 74-48. Southern lost to Grambling in 2004 (the same season Richardson signed the richest coaching contract in the league) and has proceeded to compile a record of just 8-12.

• TV: KTVE-10 (NBC)
• Radio: KNBB-99.3 FM
• Web:
• Series: Tied 16-16
• Last year: GSU won 50-35
• Coaches: GSU, Melvin Spears (third year, 20-12); Southern, Pete Richardson (13th year, 113-49)
• Line: None
• Last week: Both teams were off

Try for a rerun — literally — of 2004.

Back then, GSU quarterback Brandon Landers only attempted 13 passes while four rushers combined for 292 yards. It was a low-scoring affair, with Grambling on top 24-13, but the point total didn't fully illustrate how thoroughly Southern had been beaten.

GSU held onto the ball for more than 36 minutes, with most of the damage being done by current senior running back Ab Kuuan — who collected 126 of those yards on 18 carries.
So far, Southern has been just as bad against the run as Grambling, giving up 166 yards a number to rank one spot above the cellar-dwelling Tigers.

The problem: Grambling, even without record-smashing quarterback Bruce Eugene, has stuck to its pass-first ways. Meaning Kuuan has gained only 481 yards.

At this point last year, he'd already run for 649 — despite missing two games with an ankle injury. Kuuan's best outing so far, and only time with more than 100 yards, was a 113-yard night against cellar-dwelling Prairie View.

In all, Kuuan has run for 275 career yards and four scores on 43 carries in the Bayou Classic.

If this turns into a ground-oriented game, Grambling's SWAC-worst run defenders look to have their hands full. Southern has been talking about starting the athletic freshman quarterback Bryant Lee, and has seen Kendall Addison run for an average of 103 yards over the past five games.

Meanwhile, GSU has given up more than 200 yards on the ground four times this season. Only one opponent has been held to less than 100 yards rushing all year.

Senior receiver Henry Tolbert ran with the first team during most of Grambling's 20-day wait for this game, apparently fully recovered from non-football related maladies that kept him out of most of two previous games.

That's good news for the GSU offense. Tolbert has 11 career catches for 220 yards and two touchdowns in the Bayou Classic.

Despite being slowed by injury, Tolbert only needs to average 103 yards, two touchdowns and eight catches over Grambling's final two games this season to break that trio of career school records.

Grambling, at 3-6 so far, hasn't lost more than six games in a single season since former coach Eddie Robinson posted 3-8 marks in his final two campaigns at GSU in 1996-97. It hasn't lost six since going 5-6 in 1999, the first year of successor Doug Williams' rebuilding project.

Really, though, a Grambling coach can almost afford to go 1-10, if this is his lone win. As Williams quickly learned, for GSU fans — and, truthfully, the administration, too — the Bayou Classic counts more than any old championship.

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Measure of a team
Another close game turns into another close loss for Grambling
November 26, 2006
By Nick Deriso
NEW ORLEANS — Of course.

Of course, Grambling State jumped out to the lead, then gave it away. Of course, they played sloppy, even ugly, then charged back to the arm-waving precipice of a stirring win — only to fall just short.

Of course.

After all, the Tigers lost their first game this season by one point. And their second game by three. And three more now by 5 points each.

This Grambling squad is the embodiment of a football cliché. Theirs is a life of inches.
They've existed in space between here and . . .


So, of course, they lose 21-17 to Southern in the Bayou Classic, but only after failing to gain a first down on fourth-and-one from the SU 2 in the game's waning minutes.

There were 19 points, all of them an inch away, between this underachieving GSU team and an 8-2 record. Between them and a return trip to the SWAC Championship Game.

"We had our opportunities," said Henry Tolbert, who led all Grambling receivers with 67 yards on four catches. "We just didn't capitalize."

There has been, from the beginning of 2006, an inch or two separating this team from what it would like to be, from what perhaps it should be.

Still, there was nothing to suggest the disquieting prospect of this game's nearly unwatchable first half.

We saw two deposed SWAC powers underscoring why they had but six wins between them, after each has averaged eight a season over the last 10.

Unlike so many recent Bayou Classics, these 1,000-yard passing nights that seem so very far away now, this contest didn't look to be one where the team that scored last would win.
It would be the team that scored at all.

Grambling and Southern split their first-quarter time of possession almost exactly in half, with similar results: Tigers 0, Jaguars 0.

Grambling finally found the end zone in the second period, followed by a chorus of touchdowns from both teams late in the game, but even then there was little music to this game's backbeat of mistakes on both sides — from questionable coaching to untimely penalties and messy execution.

Southern had a tremendous 25-yard third-quarter touchdown by Bryant Lee on a designed quarterback run called back on a holding penalty. Jaguars kicker Breck Ackley, who'd only whiffed three times all year, had a 26-yarder blocked and then missed from 41 yards out.
The deciding points from Southern followed a badly mishandled punt return by Landry Carter that gave the Jaguars the ball inside GSU's red zone.

That score, a 2-yard outside run by running back Kendall Addison, was actually keyed by a fumble from Southern quarterback C.J. Byrd — who briefly replaced an injured Lee. The fumble rolled forward, however, and Byrd recovered for a first and goal.

It was that kind of afternoon.

I don't even want to think about Grambling punting on third down. Or Southern taking three points off the board in a failed attempt to score a touchdown after a GSU penalty.
Somebody had to win. They just had to.

Ultimately, it became clear that it would be Southern, which eventually began getting out of Lee what GSU had hoped to get out of starting the athletic Larry Kerlegan — tough-to-figure scrambles mixed in with a timely pass.

But Kerlegan had been ineffective in the early going, so he was replaced by fellow redshirt sophomore Brandon Landers.

He then joined in what has become a familiar refrain: Southern tied it, then went ahead, then Grambling answered back, then the Jaguars scored again, leaving GSU in the same position it occupied so many other times all year.

That is, with time short — and a very long field.

Landers methodically moved Grambling along, even as the fourth quarter drained away, handing off to senior running back Ab Kuuan at the Southern 25, the 11, the 4, then the 2.
That's where it stood, with less than three minutes remaining. GSU was left with a fourth down, and the Bayou Classic to go.

Get a yard, and there are four more downs to negotiate the remaining yard. Get two yards, and Grambling is ahead by two. Follow that with the extra point, and Southern must score a touchdown to win.

Instead, GSU lost two yards.

GSU coach Melvin Spears called "Power I, Right, 43 Lead," with Kuuan — the MVP of this game in 2004, the last time it was played at the Superdome — going over tackle.

When the senior reached the hole, it had collapsed. Just that quickly, two Southern defenders were on top of him.

Kuuan tried to bounce outside in an effort to free himself, but that's where he met Southern defensive back Jarmaul George.

A senior who, because of injury and ineligibility, had never played in a Bayou Classic before.
Of course.

"You don't know how much that hurts," said senior Grambling offensive lineman Jamar Dorsey. "To come up a yard short?"

He paused, then said: "It hurts."

The resulting tackle, which pushed Kuuan back to the SU 4, sent Southern fans into a frenzy.
See, they'd lost two Bayou Classics in a row, but these Jaguars have a knack for winning the close ones. Going back 15 years, Grambling has fallen to Southern by 3 points in 2003, by 4 in 2000, by 5 in 1996 and by 1 point in 1991.

Of course, they would win another nail-biter.

"You've got to finish that run," said Spears, shaking his head. "You've got to finish it. As a result, we lost."

He knows the words by heart, like a song that once played in heavy rotation.

There have been other details, but the results? They lost.

"It's the story," senior Henry Tolbert repeated, "of our season."

We should have known it would come down to something so mundane as an inch for the 2006 edition of the Grambling State Tigers. To something as obvious as a play here, or a player there.

Of course. It has all year.

NICK DERISO is sports editor at The News-Star, 411 N. Fourth St., Monroe, La., 71201. His weblog is at Contact him at 318-362-0234 or at

g g g
It's not curtains yet for GSU's year
Alcorn St. looms in season finale
November 27, 2006
By Nick Deriso
NEW ORLEANS — Even as they try to adjust to losing the Bayou Classic for the first time since 2003, Grambling State's players must now do the almost unthinkable: Prepare for another league foe.

GSU, which fell 21-17 against Southern in a nationally televised in-state rivalry game, plays Alcorn State this week at Robinson Stadium. It's the only Southwestern Athletic Conference game slated.

"As football players, we have to get ready to play," said senior GSU cornerback Greg Fassitt. "This is what we have to do. We have to get ready and close out at home."

The Alcorn contest was moved to the end of the schedule to accommodate a television date against Hampton in the MEAC-SWAC Challenge to open the season.

The switch meant Grambling didn't play at Robinson Stadium until Oct. 21, against Jackson State. That 36-7 victory has been followed by three consecutive losses, at Texas Southern, back home against Alabama State and then last week at the Bayou Classic.

Grambling (3-7, 3-5) had entered that stretch a half-game back of Western Division-leading Arkansas-Pine Bluff, but has now fallen all the way back to third place. UAPB will represent the division in the SWAC Championship Game on Dec. 19.

"This game teaches you how to be a man," said senior GSU offensive lineman Jamar Dorsey. "You can be at the top one minute, and then sometimes find yourself right back at the bottom. You've got to learn to live with both."

While Grambling slumped, Alcorn (5-5, 4-4) arrives having beaten its own in-state rivalry, Jackson State, in the Capital City Classic on Nov. 18. The Braves were off last week.
"This too shall pass," said GSU coach Melvin Spears. "The bottom line is, the sun will come up tomorrow. We've got to get ready for Alcorn this week. We'll try to keep it close and hope this time we come out on top."

Their GSU legacy: Grambling seniors finished their careers on a down note, but still participated in two victories over archrival Southern.

GSU had taken just one Bayou Classic since 1993 when this group, then mostly sophomores, won 24-13 in the Superdome back in 2004. A season later, as juniors, they helped Grambling to a 50-35 win after the game was moved to Houston in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

"We played good in all of them," said senior linebacker Dimitri Carr, third on the team with nine tackles last Saturday. "I guess I went out 50/50. I'm 2-2."

Grambling has won three of the last six Bayou Classics, but falling to Southern this season pushed the Jaguars to a 17-16 all-time series lead.

"It's my last one," said dejected senior running back Ab Kuuan, who came up a yard short Saturday on a fourth-down attempt in the final period that would have put Grambling in a position to win. "We're 2-2, but I still have a sour taste in my mouth."

The five-point margin of victory was the narrowest since Southern won by three in 2003, the first year many of these seniors saw playing time. Southern has won the last five Bayou Classic decided by five points or less.

"It's just that much tougher because of everything I went through to get here," said Dorsey, who suffered a knee injury that he'd just begun playing on again. "I worked so hard to get back. But the decision to come to Grambling was the best one I ever made. I feel certain that these Tigers are in good hands."

Southern's streaks: Jaguars coach Pete Richardson is now 12-4 in the Louisiana Superdome. He is 12-2 all-time against Grambling in games played there, having dropped last season's Bayou Classic at Houston's Reliant Stadium.

His kicker, Breck Ackley, finished his collegiate eligibility having scored in 42 consecutive games —- every game he played in for Richardson.

He had three points on Saturday, kicking extra points after two touchdowns in the third and then a fourth-quarter score that provided the difference in the Classic.

Ackley scored a personal-best 11 points twice over that span, and became the school's all-time leading scorer in last year's loss to Grambling.

Southern leads the overall series against GSU, which dates back to 1933, by a margin of 28-26. The rivalry was moved to New Orleans in 1974, and was first played in the Dome a season later.

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