Thursday, November 29, 2007

Remembering: The 2004 season

A happy ending
GSU overcame series of setbacks to finish on high note
Thursday, December 2, 2004

By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING - One collision in the north endzone of the Grambling State practice field, on the Tuesday before the season opener, summed up this year.

Texas Tech transfer Ivory McCann came down on the leg of projected No. 1 receiver Moses Harris. His ankle would be broken, and McCann's paperwork didn't clear. Neither played a down of football for GSU.

A season of lost promise for the Southwestern Athletic Conference's top passing attack would follow, as GSU finished 6-5 and out of title contention for the first time since 1999.

No. 2 receiver Tim Abney also missed the year with a nagging groin injury. Senior All-American quarterback Bruce Eugene then tore his ACL in Week 1. Center Lance Wright, a senior team captain, also suffered a season-ending injury.

The Tigers' offense never recovered from those personnel losses: After averaging 465 yards per game last season, GSU averaged 374. The Tigers converted on third down 45 percent of the time last year, but fell to 32 percent in 2004.

Scoring dropped by 10 points per contest. After totaling 57 touchdowns in 2003, GSU finished with 36 - three fewer than its opponents - this season.

But, in the end, GSU overcame its inexperience, both among its players and coaches, to fashion a winning season.

"All you can do is play with the hand that's dealt," said Melvin Spears, named interim coach in February after the sudden departure of sixth-year coach Doug Williams to the NFL. "Nobody knows going in that my quarterback is going to get hurt in the very first game. Or that two or three of the receivers weren't going to play. You've just got to play. And we've come out every week and done that."

With a hole now in his well-known vertical scheme, Spears struggled to adapt. Not until Week 9 did GSU settle into a pounding run game that would win its final two contests - including the emotional in-state rivalry game against Southern.

Perhaps that was expected.

"Over the past five or six years, this team might have had a good running game, but what we've done best is making receiving plays," said offensive coordinator Sammy White. "That got us on the scoreboard. That got us to championships."


GSU stumbled badly in its first two games with true freshman Brandon Landers under center. There were also problems on defense, which had worked under four coordinators in less than one calendar year.

Before he left, Williams hired Tom Lavigne to run the defense and Luther Palmer to work with the defensive line. Lavigne replaced Heishma Northern, who had filled in for Michael Roach when Roach abruptly quit early last season.

But Spears almost immediately fired Lavigne and moved Palmer, with whom he had a better working relationship, into the coordinator spot.

"When we came in this fall, it would have been nice to have spring to work," said Palmer. "But we'd only had seven or eight weeks to put in this new terminology. We were still teaching them how to do their jobs, and let every thing flow to them."

Former Grambling State great Calvin Spears then returned to coach the secondary - which vastly improved in technique, if not in big-play potential. That unit didn't make many glaring errors, but finished with eight interceptions for a conference-worst 1 yard - yes, 1 single yard - in returns.

But the year turned on offensive turnovers, anyway.

Despite Week 3's thrilling come-from-behind victory over Bethune-Cookman, Landers was, after all, a freshman - gutsy, but inexperienced and prone to fatal errors. He would lead the conference in yards per completion, but also interceptions.

So, the Cincinnati game may best be remembered as the moment when Spears began to trust in Landers' nascent promise a bit too much. Those mishaps would cost GSU some games - including Jackson State, when coaches called a staggering 46 passing plays.

It was easy to get lost in the upside, though: Landers was named the SWAC's co-newcomer of the week after accounting for 293 of Grambling State's 360 yards in total offense in the 24-23 win against Bethune-Cookman.

"The one thing that Brandon brings to the game is such poise," Spears said. "He took over that ball game - and I think the guys were starting to rally around Brandon Landers."

Northern was given the task of quarterbacks coach as Landers tried to make his way - and did an admirable job. By Week 11, Landers had settled down into quiet efficiency.

"I just want to thank the coaches for the opportunity," said Landers, The News-Star/Glenwood SportsCare prep offensive player of the year at Carroll High in 2003. "I've just got to keep studying film, keep studying every kind of defense that they can throw at me. I just want to keep improving."


The season quietly began to improve with stellar play by the special teams, where Northern did his best work as a coach. Not only were the Tigers second in the SWAC for kick coverage, Tallulah freshman Landry Carter shot to national recognition as he helped GSU to the top spot in all of Division I-AA for kick returns in early November.

Sophomore Keantwon Gray ripped off two returns of more than 90 yards in consecutive games against Arkansas-Pine Bluff and Jackson State.

Carter was named SWAC specialist of the week after he gained 240 yards in returns in the Tigers' win over Prairie View. But that contest would be marred by an on-field fight, which brought suspensions from the conference and fines for Spears from President Judson. In all, nine members of the GSU team and eight from Prairie View - along with an assistant from each school - were suspended. That made the Tigers' game at Mississippi Valley a more competitive affair.

Upon returning home , GSU continued to rely on its traditional pass-first mentality, even as the losses piled up.

Freshman wide receiver Clyde would earn co-newcomer of the week honors in late October after catching seven passes for 160 yards and two touchdowns against Jackson State. Yet, GSU fell in that game, part of an 0-4 year at Robinson Stadium.

"We were trying to figure out their motivation - whether that be playing in front of a national crowd, or just having pride in Grambling," said Calvin Spears. "It's not soul searching for talent. It's soul searching for effort. That's all we were missing."

Some of the blame for the offensive struggles could have been an over-reliance on the pass. The freshman quarterback was game, even in the face of so much adversity.

"Brandon has a lot of character about himself," said White. "When he fumbled the ball, or threw an interception, he kept his head in the game."

If Spears stayed with the vertical attack too long, he said it was the best option against the defensive looks that opponents were giving GSU. "We got everything that we wanted," said Spears. "But when you're in the red zone, your guys have to beat their guys. We just didn't cash in."

But no one could argue with the late-season success of this team's rushers. GSU's Ab Kuuan and Rueben Mayes grinded out 159 yards - and a startling combined average of eight years per carry - in a loss to Alabama State that was keyed on passing errors.

The coaches took notice. When the Tigers committed to the run, their season finally got on track. On the strength of that late surge in rushing yardage, GSU rushed for six more touchdowns this year than it had in 2003.

"We had to get 60 minutes of play out of this young team," said Spears. "Some of it was doing the little bitty things; it was execution. They had to buy into what we were doing. You saw that in the last game."


The capstone on the season was that Nov. 27 victory over Southern, putting GSU one game over .500. The Tigers averaged 5 yards per attempt and 279 total yards rushing in New Orleans.

"That is such an emotional game. There are reunions, the spectacle, the bands. But in the end, it's about football," said Spears, who will now become part of a national search to permanently replace Williams. "It comes down to guts, to heart - to the players who really want it."

The win was so transformative, as GSU teetered on a losing campaign, that the school sponsored a Wednesday victory parade then a party at Men's Memorial Gym on campus. Cheers of "Keep Coach Spears" broke out.

GSU's defense - which limited Southern to 300 fewer total offensive yards this year - slowly rounded into shape, as well. Opponents were held to 1,031 fewer yards passing, and five fewer touchdown tosses. Though the defense gave up a scant 51 more total rushing yards, there were actually 9 fewer rushing scores.

"Eventually, we are going to be very, very good in this secondary," said Spears. "Our team stuck together, no matter what was said. They may have been rattled sometimes, but they endured."

Grambling State, perhaps fittingly, scored 105 of its 294 points this season during the fourth quarter. The last quarter of play in this 11-game season was also the Tigers' best. GSU would win three of the final five games, notching its 51st non-losing season since 1945.

"I think it finished up in a way that showed how much we had progressed," said Spears, who is awaiting word on Eugene's application for a medical exemption. "We're going to look at it as building momentum. The seasoning of these freshmen makes our future look very bright - and we're getting some people back."

Final record:
6-5 overall, 3-4 in the SWAC.

Best game: GSU finally put together four quarters of football in the Nov. 27 Bayou Classic, rushing with consistency and making stops when needed. The coaching staff also showed the needed patience, sticking with the run-first game plan - even when Southern pulled ahead.

Worst game: Having lost, in quick succession, three of its best playmakers on offense, GSU stumbled badly at Alabama A&M on Sept. 11 - the only game this year where the Tigers weren't competitive. How bad was it? GSU, while its freshman fill-in quarterback was sacked six times for 54 yards in losses, was 0-for-18 on third down in the 21-9 drubbing.

Turning point: Falling to Alabama State on Nov. 6 ensured an unprecedented losing season at Robinson Stadium, but it also convinced the coaching staff that junior Ab Kuuan was ready to run. GSU would account for 735 of its 1,656 rushing yards on the season in the final three games - and go 2-1, including an emotional Bayou Classic victory.

Most telling stat: Senior quarterback Bruce Eugene's season-ending injury forever altered Spears' interim campaign. He played less than three quarters of football in 2004, yet still ended up at No. 4 for total offense on the GSU roster.

Most valuable player: Walk-on freshman sensation Landry Carter, a McCall-Tallulah product, did it all. Not only was he the top punt and kick returner, Carter was also GSU's third-leading receiver with 177 yards and third leading rusher with 211 yards. That helped him notch a team-best 1,046 all-purpose yards.

Top offensive player: Freshman Carroll product Brandon Landers, despite problems with ball placement that had the young quarterback leading the conference in picks, was a rallying point for the offense. His passing average per game was fourth in the SWAC - and his yards per completion, 17.3, was tops.

Top defensive player: The biggest loss on defense is senior Kenneth Pettway, a player of uncommon drive and intensity who would perform well both end and outside linebacker. He was second in the SWAC in 2004 for both sacks and tackles for a loss.

Top special teams player: Carter led Division I-AA nationally for several weeks on kick returns. He helped GSU finish the year atop the conference standings with an average of 23.9 yards per attempt - despite being kicked away from late in the season, notably by Southern.

Unsung hero: Senior kicker Brian Morgan quietly put together one of his best seasons, finishing 29-of-30 on extra points, 13-of-20 on field goals and second among SWAC kickers with 68 points. He also ably filled in on punting duties, averaging 36.3 yards per attempt.

Top newcomer: True freshman receiver Clyde Edwards, given the same jersey number of the departed record-smashing Tramon Douglas, displayed flashy big-play brilliance - and quickly earned a starting position. He finished the season as GSU's leading receiver in receptions, total yards and yards per game.

Emerging star: Junior running back Ab Kuuan, who coaches hoped would become an every-down runner in the offseason, exploded for consecutive 100-yard games in the final three weeks of the year - including a MVP performance on national television at the Bayou Classic.

Key injury: Senior quarterback Bruce Eugene - who led the SWAC in passing yards and total offense a season ago - went down in the season opener against Alcorn State. GSU would go from scoring 36.6 per game last year to 26.7, from passing for 3,853 yards a season ago to 2,452.

Returning starters, offense: (9) QB Brandon Landers, WR Clyde Edwards, TB Ab Kuuan, FB Rueben Mayes, LT Jonathan Banks, LG Charles Wilson, RT Andre Bennett, TE Matt Duhe and WR Zerrick Haymon.

Returning starters, defense: (7) DT Jimmy Zachary, DT Joshua Kador, DE Jason Banks, LB Dimitri Carr, CB Greg Fassitt, CB Lewis Carter and FS Zaire Wilborn.

Returning specialists: (2) P Tim Manuel, KR Landry Carter
- By Nick Deriso

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