Wednesday, December 31, 2008

SWAC Championship Game 2008

Grambling and Jackson State have become familiar foes
By Nick Deriso
December 9, 2008

GRAMBLING — Talk about a zero-sum game.

Coaches use the 0-0 equation with numbing consistency in each postseason. The regular season records, they’ll say, mean nothing. The embodiment of that, however, is Grambling’s recent history against Jackson State.

The two teams, set to meet again on Saturday in the Southwestern Athletic Conference Championship Game, have played each other three times since October of 2007, with GSU winning twice in regular-season action.

Of course, the lone loss was the most memorable, as JSU romped to a 42-31 victory in the '07 edition of the SWAC title match.

The regular season, in fact, meant nothing.

“It’s no holds barred,” third-year Jackson State coach Rick Comegy said on Monday. “The records are out the door.”

This 2008 rematch sets up the same way, with Grambling taking another regular-season victory last October. There are important differences, though.

Whereas both 2007 matchups produced scores in bunches, a new year brought two squads together that were as good on defense as they were inconsistent on the other side of the ball.

Grambling only scored one offensive touchdown in its 14-5 regular-season victory Oct. 20 over Jackson, a 46-yard touchdown reception by Nick Lewis. Defensive back Bruna Foster sealed the game with a 34-yard interception return for a score.

JSU’s points came on a safety and a field goal, as quarterback Trae Rutland’s 20-of-34 passing day produced 255 yards but also two picks.

“I don’t know if what happened three months ago has any bearing on this game,” said coach Rod Broadway, now 18-6 in two seasons at Grambling. “Just like it didn’t last year.”

The 2007 SCG, remember, ended up as an offensive firefight led by a group of veteran playmakers, with 73 total points scored on what became a rainy December night. JSU put up 416 yards to Grambling’s 326 as Jackson captured its first league title since 1996.

GSU had previously won at Jackson, Miss., on Oct. 20, 2007, during an afternoon that included four offensive touchdowns and four field goals.

“Jackson is the one we want,” said Lewis, who hauled in a 24-yard third-quarter pass in the ‘07 title match. “That one still leaves a bad taste in our mouths.”

Comegy can’t say that those old stats hold any real meaning.

That was, you know, then.

“I don’t know if it’s about familiarity or matchups,” Comegy said, “so much as planning, cutting down on mistakes, preparing your team and knowing what kind of situation you are in.”

Today, both teams have new quarterbacks, each of whom was helped along late in the year by a stable of young rushers, to go with stifling defenses.

Much has changed. But not this: Everyone is 0-0 again.

The regular season, we’ve seen, doesn’t count. Not with these two.

“You both won each side of the conference,” Comegy said. “It becomes: What do you want to do? You become a champion, or you don’t.”

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Win in SWAC title game would be one for the books at Grambling
By Nick Deriso
December 10, 2008

GRAMBLING — It’s not often that new history is made at Grambling.

Not when the program’s most recognizable coach piled up a jaw-dropping 408 career wins and 17 conference championships.

Still, earning 11 wins in one season was a rarity even for the legendary Eddie Robinson, who coached at GSU for nearly 60 seasons. He did it just twice, in 1972 and 1974.

GSU boasts a total of 21 league crowns, and has won its division in six of the last nine tries. Its 493 football victories rank No. 2 all-time by winning percentage for historic lower-division teams, only behind Yale.

Still, the program boasts just four 11-win campaigns ever.

Second-year coach Rod Broadway and the 10-2 Grambling Tigers play for that historic victory on Saturday against Jackson State in the Southwestern Athletic Conference Championship Game. Kickoff is set for 1 p.m. at Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala. The game will be broadcast nationally on ESPN Classic.

“We have a chance to step up and do something that’s special,” Broadway said. “Hopefully, this team can do something that hasn’t been done a lot around here, and that’s win 11 games.”

The most recent was in 2002 and ‘05, under Robinson successor Doug Williams and Melvin Spears, respectively.

Even if GSU were to lose, the program has reached the 10-win plateau only 10 other times, with eight of them under Robinson (1945, ‘47, ‘55, ‘73, ‘75, ‘77, ‘80 and 1992). Williams, the quarterback on those 1975 and ‘77 squads, later reached the 10-victory mark as a coach at GSU in 2000-01.

Broadway is already the first Grambling coach to go undefeated in SWAC play since 2005, and just the second since Robinson did it in the early 1990s.

One more win would likely secure the mythical National Black College Championship for Broadway’s squad – just the fourth for GSU since 2000. Grambling moved to the top of the Sheridan Broadcasting Network’s black college football poll last week with its victory over Southern and a loss by former-No. 1 Tuskegee to Alabama State.

“There’s a big difference between good and great,” Broadway said. “One more win puts us in high cotton.”

Broadway enters this title match on a remarkable run, dating back to his final seasons at Division II North Carolina Central. He has lost just three conference games in five seasons, and has won 10 times in three out of the last four campaigns.

Saturday, in fact, marks his fourth consecutive league title match – though Broadway also oversaw Grambling’s first-ever loss in five appearances at the Southwestern Athletic Conference Championship Game last season.
GSU won in 2000-02, under Williams, and again in ‘05 under Spears.

“Hopefully we can go 3-1,” Broadway said. “That’s a tribute to this staff, which has done some marvelous things over the past few years.”

Broadway also has a chance to preserve a key piece of Grambling history in Saturday’s game.

Jackson State is attempting to capture consecutive wins in the SWAC title match, something only one other team has done since the contest’s inception in 1999 – GSU. Southern advanced to two straight championship games in 2002-03, but fell the second season to Alabama State.

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Things are looking 'better' for Grambling's Broadway
Posted by NickDeriso at 12/10/2008 8:05 AM CST on

No one is going to accuse Rod Broadway of being an effusive guy. You've got to drag him, kicking and screaming, into a kind word about his Grambling football teams.

Not many would guess that he's having all that much fun, either. Not from the pained look he sometimes has when dealing with the pesky press.

He usually sticks with the script in these moments, always talking about improving -- even as his squad strung together nine wins this season. To the point where it's a running joke that every news conference of his begins with someone asking some variation on a theme: "Is your team getting better?," "Are you a good team yet?," so on.

The fact is, though, that Broadway's group hit a plateau last season as it clinched the SWAC's Western Division crown. They dropped three in a row to end the year, including the in-state Bayou Classic rivalry game and the Southwestern Athletic Conference Championship Game against Jackson State.

They didn't, and fans of the coach's favorite phraseology will love this, keep getting better.

Fast forward one calendar year. Another SWAC crown on the line, JSU again the opponent. But a whole different attitude.

"They've stayed focused; they’ve stayed in the now," Broadway said, looking loose and enthused. "This has really been a fun group to be around, and a fun group to coach, and an exciting group to watch."

Grambling isn't taking its foot off the gas going into the league's title match. I've seen, yes, improvement across every unit. That's made it easier for Broadway to admit some things. Like, say, that he's got a good team.

The "fun" part? A hush falls over the assembled media. But that's actually a reflection of how comfortable Broadway has become in his role at Grambling, and far more reflective of his natural demeanor away from cameras and microphones.

Still, hearing it leads me to believe that Broadway must really like his chances. That is, all together now, if his team keeps improving.

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Grambling, Jackson State quarterbacks took winding paths to title match
By Nick Deriso
December 10, 2008

GRAMBLING — No one, through the first month of the season, saw this coming.

Jackson State and Grambling, fresh off a shared trip to the 2007 Southwestern Athletic Conference Championship Game, had lost their starting quarterbacks.

Had struggling replacements in Trae Rutland and Greg Dillon, respectively.

Had just one win a piece.

That '07 title match couldn't have been receding faster in the rearview mirror.

Something clicked, however, for both teams. It started with both quarterbacks.

Rutland threw three touchdowns passes and seven picks in Jackson State's initial four games. He's only thrown one interception since, shooting to No. 4 in the league for completion percentage.

Dillon, meanwhile, was thrust into the No. 1 spot when fourth-year starter Brandon Landers was declared ineligible on the eve of the fall practices — then benched for Missouri transfer J.P. Tillman. He finally regained the job after a breakout Grambling win in Dallas against Prairie View.

"Brandon was a big part of our team," Dillon said. "I knew that was going to hurt us a lot, because he was so experienced. We just tried to work it out."

It wouldn't be easy. Both Landers and departed Jackson State quarterback Jimmy Oliver played cornerstone roles in getting their teams to the championship game of a season ago — and during the contest itself.

Landers, in what seemed like a turning point, threw two touchdowns passes and a pair of 2-point conversions over just 32 seconds as the second half began.

Oliver couldn't be stopped, however, as he tossed a trio of passing scores and repeatedly scrambled away from Grambling defenders to make tongue-wagging plays downfield.

JSU would win 42-31, securing its 16th SWAC football title and first since 1996.

"Jackson State is a good football team," second-year Grambling coach Rod Broadway said. "They played us very tough last year. Next week is going to be a big one."

Rutland had briefly contended for the starting role at Jackson in 2007, throwing for 302 yards, four interceptions and no touchdowns before Oliver took a firm grasp on the role.

A season later, Rutland, like Dillon, was thrust into the spotlight in the 11 th hour.

A.J. McKenna, from Lackawanna College, took most of the snaps with the No. 1 JSU offense last spring. But by the fall, both McKenna and Hinds Community College transfer Terrence Barnes had left the team.

Rutland, then as now nursing a bad shoulder, subsequently found himself — as had Dillon — contending with yet another talented transfer from the upper classification, former Louisiana Tech quarterback Michael Mosley.

Rutland "has a strong desire to be the man," third-year Jackson State coach Rick Comegy said as fall practices began. "He's going to have to be our leader."

Like Dillon's GSU squad, Rutland and Jackson State sputtered early. Grambling started 1-2, while JSU was once 1-4.

No surprise, really. Questions at quarterback don't usually lead to title game berths.

Except in a weakened Southwestern Athletic Conference, where it did for both the Eastern and Western divisional champions.

JSU, winners now of six in a row, enters Saturday's contest boasting a 7-4 mark, but without a single victory over a team with a winning record in 2008. The 10-2 Grambling has reeled off nine straight victories — seven of them against SWAC foes.

Even so, there is no denying either player's steady maturation. Rutland and Dillon have found a way, no matter the level of competition, to win.

"We're proud of Greg," Broadway said. "We lost Brandon two weeks before the season, so we came in here with a lot of inexperience at quarterback. To be able to win 10 ballgames, that's a great testament to our team."

Dillon, a product of the Mayzant projects in Bogalusa, secured his place in this season's storybook ride with a do-anything performance 70 miles down the road at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans.

Running for 136 yards and a score while passing for 151 and another, Dillon helped spark a stirring 29-14 comeback last week over Southern. Grambling had to overcome that two-touchdown deficit to earn a rematch opportunity against JSU.

Dillon, who wore "May" and "Zant" on his eye black for the Bayou Classic as a tribute to his humble beginnings, wasn't a celebrated prospect. He walked on at ULM, where the coaches wanted him to play defensive back, before transferring.

Yet his role in two game-changing drives that put Grambling ahead for good against Southern can't be overstated.

Dillon made consecutive passes to Nick Lewis on a two-play, 51-yard scoring drive to pull GSU within 2, then ran for 32 of the next drive's 51 yards to earn a lead that he never relinquished.

"His creativeness with his feet killed us," Southern coach Pete Richardson said afterward. "He did a good job."

Dillon was named the Bayou Classic's most valuable player after accounting for 77 percent of Grambling's total offense — a sterling performance only dulled slightly by two early turnovers.

"Greg is developing into a very good player for us," Broadway said. "He's learning how to manage the game. If he can protect the ball, we will be in pretty good shape. He's gotten better and better. He just has to eliminate turnovers."

Dillon, so far, has remained unscathed despite his slashing style of play, and that is where the storylines with his counterpart at Jackson State diverge.

Rutland, battling tendinitis in his shoulder, had to share time with Mosley in Jackson's most recent game, a win over in-state rival Alcorn State — but doesn't appear to be jeopardy of losing his starting job, if healthy.

Rutland completed 8 of 10 passes for 72 yards, adding 17 rushing yards and a touchdown, as JSU built a 21-point lead — only to sit out during a second-half skid where Mosely and Co. went three-and-out five times and gave the ball back on a pick. Alcorn pulled to 26-21 before finally falling in the 16th Annual Capital City Classic.

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For Grambling, neither rain nor sleet ...
Posted by NickDeriso at 12/12/2008 7:43 AM CST on

You might have suspected, as torrential downpours and teeth-splinteringly frigid winds beset the Grambling football players this week, that they simply took their football practices inside.

Maybe did some walk throughs in the warm comfort of a basketball gym, and cursed the fates.


“We practiced anyway,” said sophomore quarterback Greg Dillon. “We tried to do it the same as usual. Being out in the cold and rain might give us a better feel for the weather in Birmingham.”

Will it ever. Most times, historic Legion Field is a wintry windstorm of a place by the time the Southwestern Athletic Conference holds its annual December championship game. Last season, a rumbling storm blew through as GSU completed the second half of action against Jackson State.

Dillon and his teammates, preparing for a rematch against Jackson on Saturday, got a taste of both this week in practice.

“It been cold here the last few days, that’s for sure,” he said. “But with the rain and all, hopefully that’s prepared us a lot. I think we’re ready for it.”

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Jackson State overcame slow start to reach SWAC rematch
By Nick Deriso
December 12, 2008

Jackson State, once again, started slowly this season.

A year ago, as JSU secured its first Southwestern Athletic Conference championship since 1996, Rick Comegy’s squad dropped its initial pair of contests – including a 16-13 heartbreaker against Tennessee State in the Southern Heritage Classic.

Many left them for dead. But Jackson would lose only two more games in 2007, one of them to Grambling, before beating GSU in a December 2007 rematch for the league crown.

Current starting quarterback Trae Rutland was a backup back then, playing in eight games and throwing for 302 yards. Even losing its starter, however, Jackson was picked to repeat as the SWAC’s Eastern Division champion in preseason polling.

As was Grambling. One month into the season, both teams had combined for two victories.

Rutland, a Mississippi State transfer, struggled in his first outings. JSU opened at 1-4 – while managing 18 or fewer points in each of its first four contests. Through Jackson’s conference opener, a loss to Southern, Rutland had seven interceptions on a team ranked ninth in the conference for turnover margin.

“I’m just glad,” Comegy, in his third year with JSU, said, “that we were able to find ourselves later on in the year.”

JSU’s offense switched from a spread look to a run-first attack in late October, steadying Rutland while springing rusher Luther Edwards. Edwards instantly ran for more than 80 yards a game over the balance of that month.

But, just as importantly, Jackson State’s defense came to life.

“We were scrounging around early, trying to find the right combination,” Comegy said. “Things changed for the best.”

Jackson enters Saturday’s title contest ranked No. 1 in the league for total offense (233 yards ppg), No. 2 in rush defense (73 yards ppg), No. 1 in pass defense (161 yards ppg) and No. 2 in sacks – besting opponent Grambling in each of those categories.

Along the way, JSU linebacker Marcellus Speaks, announced as the league’s defensive player of the year on Wednesday, compiled 115 tackles (54 solo; 20.5 for loss), along with 5 sacks, one interception, two forced fumbles, and one blocked kick while leading this team to the SWAC Championship Game for the second consecutive time.

“We’ll try to get a hat on a hat,” second-year Grambling coach Rod Broadway said, when asked about slowing Speaks. “Hopefully, we can do that. They play good defense down there. I don’t see whole lot of points getting scored.”

Speaks, who earned conference defensive player of the week honors three times this season, had six games with at least 10 tackles this season – including 14 at Grambling on Sept. 20. His season high was 16 tackles (with one for loss and an assist on a sack) against Southern on Oct. 4.

That pushed JSU to six straight victories to close out the 2008 regular season, and a chance to win its first consecutive SWAC championships since 1995-96.

“I’m happy we got to a peak point,” Comegy said. “It was late, but I am happy that we got there. We’ve come of age.”

Comegy hasn’t dealt with complacency from his defending-champion players, he said, not in the wake of such a disappointing start on the season. He added that a chance to claim back-to-back crowns is its own carrot.

“What young man doesn’t want to be a champion?” Comegy asked, rhetorically. “There are very few guys who are ever in this position. They ought to feel blessed and honored. As far as excitement, it ought to be built into the formula.”

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OPENING DRIVE: Grambling (10-2, 7-0 SWAC) vs. Jackson State (7-4, 6-1)
By Nick Deriso
December 13, 2008

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — A titanic defensive battle is in the offing, featuring the Southwestern Athletic Conference’s two hottest teams: Grambling was won nine straight headed into this title game, while Jackson State has won six.

GSU, sparked by playmaking sophomore quarterback Greg Dillon, hasn’t had a contest decided by fewer than two scores over that span. Dillon has passed for 1,500 yards and 15 scores, while maintaining his spot as the team’s No. 2 rusher.

“He has some ability to do some things like running the ball and throwing the ball,” said second-year Grambling coach Rod Broadway. “It’s hard for a defense to prepare for a guy like that.”

Jackson State, however, might just be that defense. Opponents have averaged just over two touchdowns over their six-win streak.

As thrilling as Dillon’s improvisations outside the structure of Grambling’s called plays can be, he must do a better job of securing the ball.

Sometimes, he tries to do too much: All of that was on display in GSU’s in-state rivalry victory against Southern, where Dillon won the game’s MVP trophy, but not before two turnovers that helped put Grambling in a 14-point hole.

These two teams combined for fewer than three total touchdowns in a gritty regular-season meeting earlier this year, and this contest shapes up to be no different.

Grambling and Jackson are ranked in the Top 5 in every meaningful SWAC defensive categories, and in the Top 15 for scoring defense nationally.

“I don’t see a whole lot of points being scored in this ballgame; at least, that’s what I hope,” Broadway said.

“We expect the same type of defensive game.”

Jackson State coach Rick Comegy said this week that he wasn’t going to commit one player to track Dillon, though a linebacker like Marcellus Speaks would make a good spy.

Rangy, with a nasty ability to hit, Speaks has a SWAC-leading 115 total tackles. He’s joined on a tough unit that includes defensive end Marcus Benard (15 sacks, 22.5 tackles for loss) and defensive back Domonique Johnson (four interceptions, 13 pass breakups).

GSU’s still-coalescing offense will have its collective hands full.

Grambling has advanced to its second title match in as many seasons under Broadway, and its sixth since 2000, but lost this contest last year to Jackson State. That gave JSU its 16th league title.

A victory for GSU would extend its league-leading title haul to 22, and also secure the program’s fifth 11-win season ever — and first since 2005 under Melvin Spears.

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22nd to none: Grambling sitting pretty, winning ugly
Column by Nick Deriso
December 14, 2008

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Grambling, throughout this season, won ugly.

But it won.

“You say we won ugly,” second-year GSU coach Rod Broadway said on Saturday, “but it’s a sweet taste to us.”

GSU did whatever it had to in an effort to secure victory. On offense, on defense, on Saturday after Saturday.

And it won.

Jackson State endured a familiar fate in the Southwestern Athletic Conference Championship Game, as GSU claimed a league-leading 22nd crown.

Grambling’s offense sputtered and missed. But JSU never got close, as the defense strangled another victim.

Foes, all season, would slowly find themselves on the losing end of things, while GSU closed its fingers around their scoring chances.

It was more gritty than pretty. It didn’t need to be.

Grambling won, as it had the week before. And the week before that. They did it eight, nine and then 10 times in a row after Saturday’s 41-9 victory over JSU.

“You don’t win by looking pretty,” said junior Grambling end Christian Anthony, the game’s defensive most valuable player. “You win by getting ugly.”

They did.

This isn’t a finesse team, even on offense – where the rangy quarterback Greg Dillon makes out-of-body plays.

He led the unit to two quick touchdowns to open the title match. But, just like that, Grambling’s offense went ice cold for a time on this frigid December afternoon – missing an extra point, missing on a few scoring opportunities, missing a field goal to end the second period.

The defense never surrendered an inch: JSU failed to reach the end zone through the first two quarters.

When the bands marched out onto the Legion Field’s turf, “13-0” was blinking above their heads on the scoreboard.


But Grambling’s defense loves wins like this. They’ve embraced ugliness.

That wasn’t their slogan – instead, they repeated “Finish!,” after getting tripped up in the 2007 title match by Jackson – but it should have been.

Grambling built that slight lead by limiting JSU to 127 yards of first-half offense; Jackson never reached the GSU red zone over the initial two periods.

It got worse for JSU. The Grambling defense emerged from the locker room with a furious abandon. When the championship contest was over JSU had coughed up the ball five times, twice on fumbles and another three times on picks.

Jackson managed only 53 total yards rushing, 168 yards passing – minus that 66-yard touchdown reception, it was just over the century mark – and its lowest scoring output since, well, Grambling beat JSU 15-5 back on Sept. 20.

That one was ugly, too.

But Grambling won.

Credit Broadway, a collegiate defensive lineman and former Florida line coach. Credit coordinator Cliff Yoshida, a quietly efficient taskmaster.

Credit this streaking star of a linebacker Keefe Hall (who had a clutch early pick, just two Saturdays after taking defensive Bayou Classic MVP honors), the fiery presence of rover Jeffery Jack, the knifing edge rush of Christian Anthony (who added a thrilling first-half sack), the big-play brilliance of defensive backs like T.J. McCord (who almost scored on a third quarterback pick) and Kenneth Anio (who completed the scoring with a dramatic 85-yard touchdown return on a pick).

Credit them all: This was a group effort. An ugly one, done as one.

“They’re really confident in what they are doing,” said Yoshida, who with Broadway has claimed three conference titles in four years dating back to their tenure at North Carolina Central. “They think they can stop anybody. And they did.”

They never thought about last year. They never thought about how it looked.

“We won ugly all year,” Hall said. “Man, I’m actually proud of that.”

That means doing whatever it takes to win. No matter how it looks.

The SWAC trophy, named for Grambling coaching legend Eddie Robinson, is just as shiny. The tears just as real. The familiar chants of “I thought you knew!” echo just as loudly.

Sure, this championship was won despite an offense that scarcely resembles the torrid point-scorers of Grambling’s storied past.

Yet, the truth is, GSU didn’t need that kind of production. Not with this crew of quarterback-hassling, pass-thieving, run-stuffing scene stealers.

GSU’s offense struggled through a rebuilding year, meaning there were only scattered, embryonic successes.

But Grambling won, primarily through the force of its defensive will.

For me on Saturday, and all season, this group stirred up the ghosts of Fred Collins’ fearsome Trees of Terror from yesteryear at Grambling, gnashing and grinding until opponents simply crumple.

Their connective legacy – fearsome and, yes, ugly – was never more obvious than during a three-possession, early-second half sequence at Legion Field, keyed by a remarkable defensive stand.

JSU recovered a Terrance Dunn fumble on the initial possession of the third quarter at the GSU 34. Grambling’s defense shrugged it off, holding Jackson to a field goal.

One play later, David Stuckman tore through the JSU special teams, pushing the score 20-3 on a 91-yard kickoff return for Grambling.

“That was the turning point,” said third-year Jackson State coach Rick Comegy. “Then we started turning the ball over. We just couldn’t regain that emotion.”

JSU quarterback Trae Rutland was simply run over on his next try, a possession which went: Devastating sack by Otis Young, devastating sack by Melvin Matthews, devastating interception by T. J. McCord – who returned the ball to the JSU 3.
Dillon then hit Kiare Thompson for their second touchdown to push Grambling’s lead to 24 points.

The defensive line called themselves “Trench Dogs” this year. On Saturday, they dug a ravine – then tossed Jackson in.

GSU’s offense had another hiccup when Dillon turned it over again, flinging an interception to the JSU 2 late in the third period. But Grambling, as per usual, forced a quick three-and-out.

“After that,” said Matthews, the senior Grambling defensive tackle, “I knew they were finished.”

Jackson State managed a 66-yard touchdown on a broken passing play, this one coming from Louisiana Tech transfer Michael Mosley, but it was far too little, far too late. GSU then held Jackson out on a two-point conversion attempt, and added Anio’s touchdown return for a touchdown.

This defense would not be denied. Not this year. Not on this day.

Ugly or not, Grambling had won, placing the capstone on the fifth-ever 11-win season at Grambling.

“You can label it whatever you like: Pretty, ugly, whatever,” Broadway added, bristling some. “We’ve got a lot of them, and you can’t take that from us.”

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SWAC Championship notebook: There was another title at stake
By Nick Deriso
December 15, 2008

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Saturday’s 41-9 victory in the 10th edition of the Southwestern Athletic Conference Championship Game meant more than returning the Eddie Robinson Trophy to Grambling.

It likely earned GSU, who entered the title match ranked No. 1 in the Sheridan Broadcasting Network poll, a 13th national black college title.

“We knew with a win, we would be national champions,” said second-year Grambling coach Rod Broadway. “That’s a good feeling.”

GSU last won a national black college crown in 2005, under Melvin Spears. It also claimed the mythical title in 1955, 1967, 1972, 1974-75, 1977, 1980, 1983 and 1992 (all led by Robinson), and in 2000-01 (under successor Doug Williams), according to the current Grambling media guide.

Broadway has a series of incentives tied into earning the Western Division, SWAC and national black college titles built into his contract, which was updated and extended in the offseason.

Grambling extended its league lead with a 22nd conference championship on Saturday. GSU has topped the SWAC’s Western Divison six times since 2000.

Grambling’s defense, the league’s most opportunistic, opened the title match with yet another turnover.

That was a sign of things to come, as GSU forced five of them.

Lance Castleberry’s first-quarter fumble recovery gave Grambling the ball at the Jackson 48 just three minutes into the game. GSU then marched down to score the contest’s initial points.

In all, Grambling defenders intercepted three passes on Saturday, returning them for a total of 113 yards. T.J. McCord accounted for 28, while Kenneth Anio’s 85-yard dash to the end zone completed Saturday’s scoring.

“It was a good old-fashioned butt kicking,” said third-year Jackson State coach Rick Comegy.

Perhaps the most dramatic Grambling pick came courtesy of Keefe Hall, who basically fielded a punt when Christian Anthony forced JSU quarterback Trae Rutland into a pass that went straight up.

Standing at the GSU 20, Hall had to locate the football, then prepare for the coming onslaught of Jackson tacklers.

“It seemed like it was in the air forever,” said Hall, who posted a team-leading 8 total tackles. “I knew I was going to get hit. I just started holding my breath.”

Grambling’s King Beckwith also recovered a fumble.

Rutland, in his post-game remarks, looked like a player who had been digging his way out all day – only to get deeper.

“We knew it would be a defensive battle,” said Rutland, who was 7-of-15 for just 90 yards. “They just got the best of us. They got to the ball well, and just kept putting us in a bad spot.”

Jackson State’s average field position was its own 31. Only two drives started in Grambling territory, and neither ended in touchdowns.

Grambling coach Rod Broadway insisted throughout the run up to this SWAC Championship Game rematch that the opponent meant little.

He repeated that mantra after Saturday’s emotional win over Jackson State, one season after falling 42-31 at the same Legion Field venue.

“Last year was last year,” Broadway said. “Every year is a new beginning; every game is a new beginning. We tried to focus on that all year.”

Broadway’s players didn’t necessarily toe into the company line.

“This one is just that much more special,” senior defender Melvin Matthews said, “because it was Jackson State.”

Matthews was a little used backup on Grambling’s most recent SWAC title-winning team, back in his freshman campaign of 2005. That, too, added a personal dimension to the journey.

“For me, it’s so special, to leave out the way I came in – on top,” he said.

Matthews – who had a career on par with NFL defender Jason Hatcher, but with far less fanfare – made a critical sack during a three-and-out that seemed to sap the fight from Jackson State as the second-half began.

Versatile sophomore Grambling quarterback Greg Dillon won his second most-valuable player trophy in as many weeks, though in a more conventional manner.

GSU shot out of the gate with a pass-first attack, as Dillon threw for 103 of his 145 total yards by air in the first half.

A shoulder injury took him out of the game briefly in the second period, but Dillon returned. He finished 13-of-19 for three touchdowns, adding one rushing score.

Compare that with his do-everything night against Southern two Saturdays ago, when Dillon accounted for 77 percent of GSU’s total offensive yards. He was second for team rushes in the Bayou Classic, but actually ran for zero net yards against Jackson.

Sophomore running back Frank Warren rushed for 82 yards, many of them critical. He zipped to a 24-yard rush on the second-quarter drive where Dillon got dinged up and left the game. Earlier in the first period, with GSU pinned at its own 7, Warren ran for 29 yards on first down. Eight plays later, Grambling scored. … GSU was on the home side of Legion Field for the first time since its 2005 SWAC Championship Game victory over Alabama A&M. The Tigers were on the visitor’s side, opposite the press box, in 2006 for a loss in the SWAC-MEAC Challenge and then again in 2007 as GSU dropped its first SWAC Championship Game in five tries since 2000. … Grambling was stellar on returns, taking JSU kickoffs back 398 yards, averaging 57 per attempt.

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Memorable celebration envelopes Grambling after SWAC title win
Posted by NickDeriso at 12/15/2008 6:46 AM CST on

Sometimes the celebration of a championship is just as entertaining as the game itself.

Grambling’s sidelines, as Saturday’s 41-9 thrashing of Jackson State wound down, dissolved into a raucous party – with tears and hollers, brawny singing, emotional hugs and high fives.

Linebacker Keefe Hall, while multiple coaches got the ice-bucket treatment, fell to the Legion Field turf and began to make a mock snow angel.

Others, including quarterback Greg Dillon, raced to the fences surrounding the field to be with family. Many were so busy posing for pictures that they missed the final points of the game, when Kenneth Anio raced nearly the length of the field to score on an interception return.

Only the roar of the crowd drew their attention back to what football was left to play. As the final cheers grew louder, a Grambling fan held a sign that read: “Eddie Robinson Should be Proud Now,” in honor of the ESPN Classic broadcast.

Dillon got doused with Gator-ade. Charlie Brewer joined other teammates standing on a bench who were leading the Grambling faithful in cheers.

League representatives quickly rushed onto the field to prepare for the post-game awards ceremony. A boxful of hats reading “SWAC Champions 2008-2009,” placed at midfield, was snatched up in a matter of moments.

Jeffrey Jack, who wore eye black that read “my” and “time,” stood fidgeting just outside the roped area where the SWAC’s championship trophy, named in honor of Grambling legend Eddie Robinson, had been placed. He'd transferred from LSU only to endure a losing season, then a heartbreaking loss in the conference title match.

“Can I just hold it?,” said Jack, who had a team-tying eight stops. “Can I kiss it? That’s all I want!”

Then … he did.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Bayou Classic 2007

BAYOU CLASSIC 2007: Robinson said emotional goodbye a decade ago
November 21, 2007

By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING — The 1997 Bayou Classic won't be remembered as much of a game, with Southern breezing to a 30-7 victory.

Grambling State, in fact, managed just eight first downs, and was one-of-10 on third down. Southern held GSU to a season-low 123 yards of total offense.

Yet the 23rd edition of this legendary rivalry game — a blowout before 64,500 at the Superdome in New Orleans — stands as one of the most cherished in the series, since it marked the final contest coached by Grambling's Eddie Robinson.

Robinson, at the time, tried to down play things.

"I'm really not trying to think of this game as my last," he said, days before kickoff. "It's there in the back of my mind, but I'm really just trying to take this as just the next game we have to try to win."

That's not the way it turned out, of course, as a final loss marked the end of the late Robinson's sterling 57-season career. His career tally: 408 wins, with 165 losses and 15 ties over 45 winning seasons.

There was more to it, though, then and now.

"During that last game, I'll never forget looking into his eyes," said former Grambling offensive lineman Toriano Young, a Wossman product. "He had a couple of tears rolling out. He said: 'I tried to teach you as football players, but most of all as young men.' You won't find too many coaches who would talk about not just about football, but also the game of life."

Now, a decade later, the Bayou Classic is set for kickoff at 1 p.m. Saturday in the Superdome — without Robinson, its cofounder. He succumbed to complications from Alzheimer's seven months ago at age 88.

"The game itself has continued — and, for our family, there is a feeling of pride and accomplishment," said Eddie Robinson Jr., a former player who coached alongside his father for 15 seasons. "The feeling on that last day, in his last game, is something you really can't describe, though — even if you've lived it."

The emotions surrounding the 1997 Bayou Classic continue to resonate, even if the contest was over almost before it began.


Southern jumped out to a quick 20-point lead in 1997, as quarterback Marcus Jacoby connected on touchdown passes of 3 and 16 yards, while kicker Chris Diaz hit field goals of 32 and 39 yards.

"We couldn't give you a show," Robinson lamented after the game. "They played better from the beginning."

Grambling answered at 8:42 in the second period with a 49-yard catch and run by Silas Payne, but could not find the end zone again.

The deflating finale was particularly frustrating for offensive coordinator Melvin "Jim" Lee, a former standout for Robinson on GSU's undefeated 1955 teams who later served for 40 seasons as his assistant.

Lee's tenure on the sidelines included more than 300 of Robinson's wins, but concluded with six straight stumbles over that emotional season. The program, hobbled by integration, had become the victim of passing-game inconsistencies — and passing times.

"The kids tried their very best," Lee said, "but we just didn't have the talent."

More than 250 credential requests were filled, overflowing the Superdome's allotment of 175 seats for the media. The locker room and stands teemed with well-known Grambling products, including Willie Davis, James Harris, Ernie Ladd and Roosevelt Taylor. Charles Smith, Henry Dyer, Mike Williams, James Hunter, Elfrid Payton and Trumaine Johnson were also spotted.

"He was really touched by that," Robinson Jr. said.

Still, the very attention that Robinson so richly deserved as he concluded an immortal college football career — he still holds the Division I record for victories — ended up working against Grambling on that Saturday in November 1997.

"Everybody did us a favor by putting all the attention on Eddie Robinson," Southern coach Pete Richardson said then. "We just had to come in and do what we usually do."

That was win, and handily. Richardson would never fall to Robinson, and claimed two of Southern's four SWAC titles of the 1990s during his final seasons at Grambling.

"My dad never really looked at it from a personal standpoint. He just wanted to beat Southern — whoever was the coach," Robinson Jr. said. "Pete was a guy who had some good athletes. He and his staff just did a good job of coaching, not just against Grambling but against everybody."


When this one was over, Jacoby had added a third touchdown for Southern, and the second TD toss to John Foreman, before Diaz finished the scoring with a three-pointer from 27 yards with five minutes remaining.

As the clock, and Robinson's career, winded down, GSU players like Young and defensive back Fahkir Brown could sense the enormity of the moment.

"It's a great honor, playing in his last game," Brown, now an NFL starter for the St. Louis Rams, said after the game. "I know I was playing my hardest."

Robinson's counsel still resonates for Young, called "Big Preacher" back then.

"I'm glad I got a chance, this privilege, to play under a legend in his own time," Young said. "I may not ever see him again, but I know I got chance to play for him — and to build a father-son relationship with him."

In the end, Silas — named Grambling's player of the game — led all Tigers' receivers with four catches for 76 yards. GSU quarterback Michael Kornblau only completed two other passes for 14 additional yards. Wingback Frank Bailey led the Tigers with fewer than 30 rushing yards.

Defensively, linebacker Claudell Sanford — who also kicked off for Robinson — topped all GSU tacklers with 11, adding a fumble recovery. Lineman DeCarlos "Los" Holmes, a former All-Northeast standout at Grambling High and now an assistant at Bastrop, added nine tackles — including four for a loss.

"It wasn't a really good memory because we lost," Robinson Jr. said. "That, combined with it being his last one, I would say we had mixed emotions. But the send off that the fans gave him? I thought that was great."

Robinson left the game in style, to cheers from both sides of the stadium. The Chrysler Minority Dealers Association presented the then-78 year old with a 1998 Dodge Intrepid during post-game festivities.

"We're so proud to be playing in this facility, in the state of Louisiana and in the greatest country in the world," Robinson said then, fighting back tears.

He also stopped to accept a call from President Bill Clinton.

"Mr. President," Robinson said, "to be here with my friends, and people I know and love, and to be talked to you, this is indeed a great honor."

Then just after 5 p.m., he began to make his way out of the Superdome.

"Wait, Coach," a Superdome official said, as Robinson turned the key on the Intrepid. "There is a press conference to go to next."

The event and all of its attendant duties had almost been lost in the hoopla, the game very nearly turned into a sideshow. But, in this instance, it was appropriate. Robinson's towering achievements deserved no less.

"I saw a lot of evidence of him taking it all in later," Robinson Jr. said. "The way he was treated, and the way he was honored, really hit him then."

The College Football Hall of Fame would waive its mandatory three-year waiting period following retirement for Robinson, notifying him just weeks later of his induction.



NBC Sports will air the documentary "Every Man a Tiger: The Eddie Robinson Story" a half hour before the Bayou Classic on Saturday.

"NBC came in and spent a lot of time with us," said Eddie Robinson Jr., who coached with his father for 15 years. "We're just thankful to have him and the family recognized like that."

The 30-minute special will be presented commercial-free at 12:30 p.m. by State Farm. A trailer of the film can be viewed at www.

The longtime former Grambling coach passed last April at age 88.

— Nick Deriso,

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BAYOU CLASSIC 2007: With plenty still to play for, Grambling moves past ULM loss
November 20, 2007

By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING — Losing to ULM, as emotional as that was, is behind them now.

Sure, Grambling State's stumble goes on the overall ledger, but this week's Southern game counts.

In the standings, and in the lore surrounding this program.

GSU had won eight Southwestern Athletic Conference contests, including seven in row, before falling against that nearby upper-classification foe two weeks ago. A win against Southern, though, would complete a second undefeated league run in two seasons.

The Bayou Classic kicks off at 1 p.m. Saturday at the Superdome in New Orleans, and will be broadcast nationally on NBC.

"We're still 8-2," said first-year coach Rod Broadway. "We're undefeated in our league, and we're proud of that. Our goal is to win the conference championship."

Grambling secured a berth in that match by beating Alabama State on Nov. 3. Next came a two-touchdown loss to ULM.

"As much as we wanted that game, it's not a conference game," said record-breaking senior Grambling receiver Clyde Edwards, a Houston native. "We're still undefeated in SWAC. Now, we're getting ready for Southern."

Even locals like junior quarterback Brandon Landers, who prepped at Monroe's Carroll High, have put the disappointment behind them.

"Life goes on. We're focused on Southern, on the game at hand," said Landers, who is 1-1 as a starter in the Bayou Classic. "We've put that behind us; now we are focusing on the next opponent."

Southern, at 7-3 overall and 5-3 in league action, has fallen into third place in the SWAC's Western Division, taking some of the intrigue out of Saturday's game. But not much.

"If I have heard it one time," Broadway said, "I have heard it a thousand times: 'We don't care how you do, as long as you beat Southern."

Either the Jaguars or GSU have now advanced to represent the West at the SCG in seven of its eight total editions. Grambling has established a 4-0 record, while Southern is 2-1.

With a trip to the next championship contest already assured, Grambling has a chance to continue a decade of dominance that has run unabated through a series of coaching changes. Doug Williams led GSU to titles in 2000-02, while Melvin Spears helped the Tigers to another in 2005.

Still, Broadway isn't looking that far down the road just yet. Not with the emotion, pageantry and flinty competitiveness that Southern always adds to this in-state conference rivalry.

Twice, in 1999 and 2003, the Bayou Classic decided which of the two teams advanced to the SWAC Championship Game. Southern won both, on its way to a pair of titles.

"There's a lot of meat left on that bone," Broadway said of Grambling's season. "We can't get too satisfied with the championship berth with Southern staring us in the face. We've got to get ready for that."

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BAYOU CLASSIC 2007: Taking cues from a defensive guru
November 22, 2007

By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING — One of the most intriguing subplots of this Bayou Classic stars Clifford Yoshida.

Once a defensive coordinator for longtime Southern coach Pete Richardson, he returned to Baton Rouge in 2006 as an assistant with Rod Broadway at Division II North Carolina Central and topped his former boss.

He then followed Broadway from NCCU to Grambling, setting up a rematch in Saturday's in-state Southwestern Athletic Conference rivalry game.

Kickoff for the Bayou Classic between Southern and Grambling is set for 1 p.m. at the Superdome. NBC will broadcast the game nationally.

"We're doing something a little different, demanding some different things," said Yoshida, who was with Broadway for three seasons at NCCU. "They seem to be responding. I'm happy with the progress."

Grambling enters this weekend's contest at No. 2 for total defense, allowing 288 yards a game — and league-low 17 touchdowns. Grambling is also No. 2 in the SWAC for turnover margin, with a plus-15 ratio.

"'Coach Yo' is a big improvement from last year, I must say," said senior Grambling defensive back Jeffrey Jack, an LSU transfer. "He makes good calls, and prepares us very well. He puts us in good position within the game so we can stop people."

This remade Grambling staff has won eight SWAC games already, with a chance to go undefeated in regular-season league play at the Bayou Classic. In fact, its only two losses are against upper-division teams, Pittsburgh in September and ULM earlier this month.

Even in that two-touchdown loss to the Warhawks on Nov. 10, Broadway took time out to praise his improving defenders for plugging up the middle.

"Our defense never gave up," Broadway said. "For the most part we stopped the run, though we lost containment a couple of times and the ball got outside. We created some turnovers that weren't able to capitalize on."

The connection between Yoshida, a 37-year coaching veteran, and Richardson goes back to the Jaguars' initial SWAC championship in 1993. He and Richardson went 11-1 (the program's second 11-plus win season ever) and brought home Southern's first league crown in 18 years — and its first outright crown in 34 seasons.

That began an impressive streak for Southern, though Yoshida departed for East Carolina. The Jaguars would win five titles over the next 10 seasons — a run that included SWAC Championship Game victories in 1999 and 2003 — as well as a runner-up finish in 2004.

Many credit the groundwork installed by "Coach Yo," who's helped reshape a similarly moribund Grambling defense that had hovered near the bottom of the league in many key categories for much of last season.

"It's pretty comparable," Yoshida said. "They've taken a little while to get used to what we are trying to teach. Old habits are sometimes hard to break — after all, they had played under the old system for three years."

Grambling would end up allowing a league-worst 34 touchdowns in 2006, with 21 surrendered by its cellar-dwelling rush defense.

Meanwhile, on that return trip last year to Baton Rouge, Yoshida befuddled Southern — forcing the Jaguars into seven turnovers (six interceptions and one fumble recovery) on the way to a shocking 27-20 victory.

"We've got shut them down again, to keep his reputation up," said Jack, who leads all Grambling tacklers with 64.

That NCCU win in Baton Rouge was part of a school-record 11-0 season, as Broadway and Yoshida won a second consecutive Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association Football championship.

Broadway, one of black college football's hottest commodities last offseason, then found his way to Grambling and brought Yoshida along.

They found a Grambling defense in transition.

The program had missed critical on-field leadership as consecutive defensive ends left through the NFL Draft in 2005-06, first Kenneth Pettway and then Jason Hatcher, then saw four starters graduate going into 2007.

But all was not lost, Yoshida said.

"In my opinion, we have some pretty good guys in the back end — and we have some size up front," Yoshida said.

He and the Grambling staff have been able to transform senior lineman Jason Banks into an every-down menace on the nose, and maximized the emerging talent of sophomore end Chris Anthony.

Fellow end John Scroggins, though hobbled this week with an ankle injury, provides critical disruption for the youthful linebacking unit led by junior John Carter and converted safety Zaire "Pitbull" Wilborn. A veteran secondary manned by Jack and DeMichael Dizer, among others, rounds out the group.

"I think we've got some athletic ability; the kids run pretty well," Yoshida said. "When we put it all together, I think we're pretty decent."

Described by more than one Grambling defender as a mad scientist-type, Yoshida has used inventive schemes and one-of-kind personality in the film room to forge a newfound confidence.

This group has, in fact, been at its best in league matches that mattered most.

Grambling allowed an average of 11 points in games against defending league champion Alabama A&M, eventual 2007 Eastern Division winner Jackson State and in the contest against Alabama State that clinched a berth in the SWAC Championship Game.

A&M managed just 147 total yards (30 of it on the ground), while only 34 of ASU's 169 total yards came by air. Jackson State had better passing numbers, but could eke out just 25 yards on the ground.

"I think we can get a lot better," Yoshida said. "We're just taking it one week at a time, and trying to improve. It's typical coach-speak. But that's really what you are trying to do."

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BAYOU CLASSIC 2007: Lewis arrives for Grambling in 'Nick' of time
Big-play junior has become Tigers' leading receiver in yards per catch

November 19, 2007

By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING — Southern will likely have a tight focus on passing downs against Grambling State.

After all, GSU starts widely respected receivers Clyde Edwards and Reginald Jackson. The former holds a school record for career touchdowns, while the latter is a guy who's gobbled up 57 passes so far in 2007.

That tends to draw attention away from junior Nick Lewis, who's managed just 10 receptions.

He's taken an opportunistic approach when the ball comes his way, though, rewarding the patient with some memorable, electrifying experiences.

That was Lewis, for instance, dashing 51 yards for a score against Texas Southern at homecoming, then adding another 63-yard stunner against Football Bowl Subdivision opponent Louisiana-Monroe two weeks later.

"Nick can run, and now he's catching the ball better," said first-year Grambling coach Rod Broadway. "That's what it's all about, growth. He's growing as a player, and getting better and better."

Up next for GSU is its pitched in-state rivalry game against Southern, in the 34th edition of the Bayou Classic. Kickoff is 1 p.m. Saturday at the Louisiana Superdome.

Lewis arrives in New Orleans as the perfect check down, when Edwards and Jackson are covered, for the deep passes that open up Grambling's running game.

"That sets the mold for how we want to play the game," said Lewis, a 6-0, 180-pound Marshall, Texas, product.

A knack for the big catch has helped Lewis shoot up to No. 4 on the team for total receiving yards with 239.

He's averaging a team-best 23-yards per catch, well past the SWAC's leading receiver — Alabama A&M's Thomas Harris, who is averaging 18. Only Jackson has made a longer catch and run for Grambling this season.

"Nick is very deceptive, and has great size," said 10th-year Grambling receivers coach Sammy White. "He came out of Marshall as a running back, but has been working with me for three years and we're looking for big things out of him."

Lewis says he's fine, for now, outside the spotlight. A backup who never saw the field when GSU surged to the Southwestern Athletic Conference title in 2005, he is more focused on the big picture of winning.

Beating Southern this week at the Bayou Classic, Lewis said, would help Grambling regain whatever momentum it lost in that two-touchdown stumble against ULM.

"We can see on the film that they are a pretty good team," Lewis said. "On offense, we've got step up."

When Lewis hauled in that 51-yarder at homecoming, it was his only catch of the day — and just his seventh on the year.

Still, Lewis has already matched his receptions total as a sophomore, when he averaged just 14 yards a catch. And he didn't even appear in the stat sheet for four games, sitting out against Alabama A&M and Prairie View and being held without a catch at Alcorn and FBS foe Pittsburgh.

"When he gets the chance, he's making the best of it," said junior quarterback Brandon Landers. "We're trying to get everyone involved in the offense right now, and he's making plays."

That includes critical receptions on each of Grambling's first three scoring drives against Arkansas-Pine Bluff. They went for 18, 17 and then 27 yards, helping GSU regain a lead it would never relinquish.

His 15-yard reception at Alabama State was part of Grambling's second scoring drive. Lewis also had one catch (for 17 yards) against Mississippi Valley, and two against Jackson State.

Each was a league win for Grambling, part of a streak of seven in a row that hurtled GSU to its fifth Western Division crown since 2000.

"He's got all the tools," Edwards said. "He's making the best of his opportunities."

And Lewis is making them at just the right time, since both Edwards and Jackson are departing seniors.

"It will be between him and (junior Clinton native) Kovarus Hills," said White, himself a former All-SWAC wingback at Grambling. "Nick has really been coming around. He could definitely be our No. 1 receiver one day."

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OPENING DRIVE: Grambling vs. Southern, Bayou Classic XXXIV
November 24, 2007

By Nick Deriso
Grambling State has won eight straight Southwestern Athletic Conference games so far.

The Tigers have clinched a trip to the SWAC Championship Game, their fifth since 2000.

So what?

All of that means little to many fans if Grambling falls in the Bayou Classic, its annual nationally televised Superdome contest against in-state rival Southern.

Lose them all, supporters have told first-year GSU coach Rod Broadway, but you better win this one.

That would appear to be an easy proposition

After all, Grambling's only 2007 losses have been to upper-classification foes Pittsburgh and ULM. Meanwhile, the once-streaking Southern opened with five wins but then finished 2-3, leaving the Jaguars to play the spoiler role.

But this is a spot that suits the Jaguars, who are a respectable 2-2 in the Bayou Classic when Grambling has already booked a trip to Birmingham — winning in 2000 and '02.

"This is one where I've been told you can throw the records out the window," Broadway said. "I don't know if how we are doing, or how they are doing, has anything to do with this game. It's how well you prepare and how well you play during the course of the game."

Southern, which is trying to avoid finishing lower than second place in the West for the first time since 2000, has gone 11-3 against Grambling since Pete Richardson took over. That run has pushed Southern ahead by one all-time victory, but the series is knotted at 3-3 since 2001.

Grambling (8-2) vs. Southern (7-3)

• Kickoff: 1 p.m. today, Louisiana Superdome, New Orleans


• Series: Southern, 17-16.

•Coaches: Grambling, Rod Broadway (first year, 8-2; 41-13 overall); Southern, Pete Richardson (15th year, 121-52; 163-66-1 overall).

•Line: Grambling by 11 1/2


Do the little things

As dramatic as the Bayou Classic can be, with so many stirring twists and turns, the games have typically turned on one or two key plays.

Grambling fell last year, for instance, when a fourth-year starting running back couldn't convert on a fourth-and-one from the Southern 2-yard line with less than two minutes remaining.

The pitched emotions associated with the Bayou Classic require a centered, fundamentally sound approach. Broadway has stressed that all week.


Grambling running backs vs. Southern defense

When Grambling couldn't get its running game going against ULM two Saturdays ago, the passing attack was grounded as well. The new scheme installed for junior quarterback Brandon Landers relies on the rush, and intermediate passing, to set up deep strikes to receivers Clyde Edwards and Reginald Jackson.

If Southern makes GSU one dimensional, as ULM did, the Tigers could fall for a second time in as many years.


Grambling's defense has been drilling extensively for the screen play, something Southern has used to bedevil the Tigers.

"They threw a lot of them last year, and they beat us," said Grambling defensive back Jeffrey Jack, the team's leading tackler. "We've been working on executing against that. If we give a good effort, we can win."


The Bayou Classic doesn't count in the sense that Grambling has already secured a berth in December's SWAC Championship Game.

Then again, the Southern game is critical to state recruiting, and to bragging rights. Players like senior GSU defender Jason Banks would also like to gain momentum with a final regular-season victory.

"You don't want to go into the championship with a loss," Banks said. "Southern lost to us in 2004 and went on to lose the SWAC."

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BAYOU CLASSIC 2007: New Orleans game still big deal for Robinsons
November 24, 2007

y Nick Deriso
NEW ORLEANS — For Doris Robinson, the trip back to New Orleans was one of both joy and melancholy.

There are so many things she remembers, in and around the Superdome, about her life as the wife of late longtime Grambling State coach Eddie Robinson.

Robinson co-founded the Bayou Classic in this place, perhaps his most obvious legacy after passing last

April at age 88. His name is written on a commemorative banner inside the facility — and, even today, across her heart.

"I have cried today," said Doris Robinson, who cared for her husband through a long bout with Alzheimer's-like symptoms. "But I am through with that now. I am going to enjoy the rest of this weekend."

This is just the second time she has attended the Bayou Classic, today's nationally televised in-state rivalry game against Baton Rouge-based Southern, since Robinson retired a decade ago.

Married as childhood sweethearts in 1941, Doris and Eddie were present when the Superdome honored Robinson with that banner.

"It means a lot," Doris Robinson said. "Everything has. When people say good things about him, I know that way back then I wasn't wrong."

Robinson and her son Eddie Robinson Jr. were set to spend the rest of Friday night visiting with friends and family. Today, she will be honored — fans have taken to calling Robinson the "First Lady of Football" — before the 34th playing of the Bayou Classic.

"It's always been a real good event for the state, and one that everybody has come to associate with my father and the family," said Robinson Jr., who coached alongside his dad for 15 seasons. "It brings back a lot of good memories."

The last few months have been a whirlwind for the Robinson family, as a series of the coach's former Southwestern Athletic Conference foes honored a man who still holds the Division I record for wins. The SWAC also announced that its football championship trophy will be renamed for Robinson.

At Grambling, the football team is wearing jersey patches in memory of the former coach, and Doris Robinson was also recognized before GSU's first home game.

Today, NBC Sports will also air a 30-minute Robinson documentary at 12:30 p.m., a half hour before kickoff, called "Every Man a Tiger." Included is never-before-seen archival footage as well as new images and interviews collected earlier this year.

"It has been great, and sometimes overwhelming," Doris Robinson said. "Of course, they were not telling me anything that I didn't know about him already. It just so happened that everything I knew about him was good. It's been nice sharing the memories."

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BAYOU BUMMER: Grambling falls to Southern for 2nd straight Classic loss
November 25, 2007

By Nick Deriso
NEW ORLEANS — Grambling State University fell behind in the first quarter and never regained the lead in a tightly contested Bayou Classic loss to Southern University.

GSU's 22-13 stumble, its first in Southwestern Athletic Conference play, leaves the team at 8-3 overall.

"The most embarrassing part is they played harder than us," first-year Grambling coach Rod Broadway said. "I think they had a little more intensity than we had tonight."

The Tigers have lost two straight after falling to the University of Louisiana at Monroe in non-league action two weeks ago.

Despite that skid, Grambling has already secured a berth in the SWAC Championship Game, to be played Dec. 15 against Eastern Division champion Jackson State. GSU earned the Western crown for the fifth time since 2000 with a win over Texas Southern in October.

That didn't lessen the impact of losing to Grambling's in-state conference rival.

"They outcoached us, and they outplayed us," Broadway said. "We'll regroup in the next couple of weeks and try to win the SWAC Championship."

Southern, which has taken two in a row against GSU, now leads the all-time series 18-16. Over the years, Southern has had overwhelming success when the games are close, winning nine of 11 contests decided by a touchdown or less since the game moved to the Superdome in 1974.

Attendance on Saturday, announced at 53,297, was the fourth-lowest ever. Last season's crowd of 47,136, in the first-post Katrina playing of the Bayou Classic, set the record for smallest gate.

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BAYOU CLASSIC: As always, this rivalry leaves little room for error
November 25, 2007

By Nick Deriso
NEW ORLEANS — Southern scored.

Grambling scored.

Southern scored again.

It was only the first quarter in the Bayou Classic.

Always a back-and-forth affair, and often featuring whisker-thin margins of victory, this is the way it goes when Grambling and Southern play.

This makes for a November afternoon spent twisting and squirming in edge-of-the-bleacher anticipation.

That's true for fans as much as it is for first-time participants like rookie Grambling coach Rod Broadway.

"I enjoyed everything," he said, "except the outcome."

There are now just two victories separating Southern and Grambling since this intense, emotional rivalry moved into the Superdome. The Jaguars have won 18 times while GSU has taken 16.

Over the past six years, each had won three times. Coming into this game, Grambling quarterback Brandon Landers was 1-1 all time as a starter against the Jaguars.

So, not surprisingly, the 34th Bayou Classic began with a knotted-up initial period, then deadlocked with a series of failed attempts to score after Southern established a 14-7 lead.

Southern ran 35 first-half plays, and Grambling ran 34. GSU had 10 first downs through half time, while Southern had 13. Each had an interception.

"Oh, man," junior Grambling quarterback Brandon Landers said, as senior receiver Reginald Jackson sat nearby trying to compose himself after the game.

"We both came out fired up," Landers finally continued. "Southern stayed on us, though."

Blows were landed, and countered. But both teams stood, a bit bloodied but resolute, having resolved almost nothing as the bands played.

All was as expected.

Grambling might have seen an opening when starting Southern quarterback Bryant Lee left the game with a fractured thumb. Instead, the second half began with two punts.

Even when Southern put together a drive deep into Grambling territory early in the third period, backup passer Warren Mathews lost a fumble after being smothered by a group of Tiger tacklers.

Nobody had scored since the 1:50 mark in the first period.

Somebody would have to make a mistake. Any mistake would do, with a game this close.

Grambling made that mistake, then made another.

Both miscues came on special teams, leading to five points by the Jaguars, first on a safety then on a field goal.

"It got us in trouble, but the difference was they played harder than us, and faster than us," Broadway said. "It's not one thing. It's a lot of things. We couldn't defend the pass; we couldn't stop the run. We couldn't throw; we couldn't catch. It was a total breakdown on our part."

Southern had the smallest sliver of a lead, 19-7 midway through the fourth quarter.

It would be enough. It usually is.

Southern is 9-2 in Bayou Classics decided by a touchdown or less — a streak that includes last year's edition, when Grambling lost after failing to convert on fourth-and-one to extend its final offensive drive.

An offensive showcase-turned-defensive battle that produced just two points over two periods then turned again.

Southern scored, then Grambling scored, then Southern scored again in a fourth quarter every bit as fast-paced and thrilling as the first.

The contest had blown open with an almost visceral suddenness, like a balloon popping.

Grambling added a 27-yard touchdown pass from Landers to senior Clyde Edwards — tightening his grip on the school record for scoring receptions — but then gave up a long pass to set up the deciding Southern field goal.

"They're a good team," Landers said. "They made the plays down the stretch. You've got to take your hats off to them."

A final Landers interception made it official. But this one had been over since that first snap was lost at the feet of Grambling punter Tim Manuel.

In a rivalry like this, played to a virtual draw, there is no room for error.

And certainly not for two.

Grambling, as expected, would lose.

"They played harder than us; they played better than us," Broadway, clearly frustrated, finally said. "It's just embarrassing."

NICK DERISO is assistant managing editor at The News-Star, 411 N. Fourth St., Monroe, La., 71201. Contact him at (318) 362-0234 or at nderiso



Junior Grambling defensive back Aaron Brown picked off a Bryant Lee attempt early in the second quarter, the first turnover of the 34th Bayou Classic and his first-ever interception. Brown is a brother of Chris Brown, a key secondary contributor on Grambling's 2002 championship team.


Junior quarterback Brandon Landers, set up late in the first half at the Southern 30, was hit on a safety blitz just as he threw, sending the ball wobbling between two GSU receivers. Southern defensive back Michael Williams was there to pick it off, snuffing a chance for Grambling to even the score at 14.


Sterlington product DeMichael Dizer, a senior Grambling defensive back, put a stinging hit on Southern receiver Clevan White — knocking him back three yards on the Jaguars' initial drive of the day.


Senior Grambling kicker Tim Manuel had a trio of effective, if not very pretty, directional punts in the first half, pinning Southern deep in its own territory. But a blocked attempt in the third quarter, then a mishandled ball inside the Grambling 10 on a final-period bad snap, erased what had once been a stellar day on special teams.


Senior Grambling quarterback Larry Kerlegan took the field for the first time since re-injuring his ankle against Mississippi Valley, lining up in the slot during Grambling's initial drive. He later spelled at quarterback when Landers took a breather after a third-quarter clobbering by Southern's Joseph Selders and D.J. Bolton.


Attendance at the game, announced at 53,297 on Saturday, was the fourth-lowest ever. Last season's crowd of 47,136, in the first-post Katrina playing of the Bayou Classic, set the record low. The biggest gate ever remains the initial playing in 1974, when 76,753 fans crammed into the old Tulane Stadium. The two highest-attended Bayou Classics of the last decade were in 1996 and 2002, both with Superdome capacity crowds of 72,586 announced.

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BAYOU CLASSIC: Grambling's Broadway confronted by furious fans
November 25, 2007

By Nick Deriso
NEW ORLEANS — First-year Grambling coach Rod Broadway got a rude introduction into the furious emotion associated with losing the Bayou Classic.

In the frenetic moments following Southern's 22-13 win in this in-state rivalry game, Broadway was accosted by several supporters — including former Grambling defender Elfrid Payton.

Broadway was still stung by the fans' response, as reporters encircled him outside the GSU lockerroom in the Superdome moments later.

"They can have this (expletive) job," Broadway said. "If that's the way they want to do, they can have this (expletive) job."

Payton also confronted former Grambling coach Doug Williams after the 2003 Bayou Classic, which GSU lost 44-41, nearly causing a fist fight.

"That's a shame," Broadway said. "We are trying as hard as we can try. That's why I don't want (fans) down there (on the sideline). That stuff is uncalled for."

RECOGNIZING THE ROBINSONS: Doris Robinson appeared at midfield in pregame ceremonies, where she was recognized along with son Eddie Robinson Jr. and grandson Eddie Robinson III.

The late Eddie Robinson coached his final game at the 1997 Bayou Classic, wrapping up a career that included a Division I record 408 wins. The Superdome later honored him with a commemorative banner that still hangs in the facility. He's one of just five people ever to be so recognized — and the only one not associated with a New Orleans sports team or the Superdome itself.

Gov.-elect Bobby Jindal and Grambling president Horace Judson were among those who shared the spotlight with Robinson's widow, who was decked out completely in gold.

A moment of silence was held for Robinson before kickoff.

TIGER PAUSE: The Grambling football team debuted a new jersey on Saturday, playing in gold with black and white stripes — reminiscent of the style worn by the Tigers under Coach Eddie Robinson in the 1970s, but with a black stripe down the side and without the red accent. ... The Tiger Marching Band, meanwhile, appeared in white tuxedos, a look from the 1980s. ... Ford Motors, a game sponsor, handed out thundersticks before the game, added a tremendous amount of volume to the raucous proceedings. ... Grambling captains were Jason Banks, Clyde Edwards, DeMichael Dizer (a Sterlington product) and Tim Manuel. ... Freshman Grambling running back Frank Warren was prominently featured in a commercial during the Bayou Classic for a new video game focusing on black college football programs.

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BAYOU CLASSIC: Fans say they understand Grambling coach's frustration
November 26, 2007

By Nick Deriso
NEW ORLEANS — Grambling State's Rod Broadway can be forgiven for angry comments made in the furor of emotion following Saturday's loss in the Bayou Classic.

That's the response from many GSU fans, a day after their first-year coach lashed out when confronted by disappointed alumni on the Superdome sidelines.

"I was always of the opinion that fans are supposed to be the support group of an athletic entity," said Michael Watson, a 1977 Grambling graduate. "How was this latest display of contempt toward Coach Broadway supportive?"

Moments after exchanging heated sideline barbs with supporters, including former Grambling defender Elfrid Payton, Broadway became increasingly frustrated in front of a group of reporters when asked about the situation.

"They can have this (expletive) job," Broadway said, stabbing the air with his index finger. "If that's the way they want to do, they can have this (expletive) job."

Broadway then stormed back into the locker room.

"The guy approached Coach in an ignorant manner which in no way reflects the attitude of loyal Grambling, alumni, supporters and friends," said GSU fan Kendall C. Price, a Monroe native. "What Coach said wasn't in his heart, but he said it in human defense of his feelings."

Besides, longtime Grambling fan Beverly Thomas said, Saturday's loss can't tarnish the stellar job this new staff has done in rebuilding after a dismal record last season.

"Coach Broadway has turned a 3-8 team into an 8-3 within a year," she said. "GSU went from SWAC champs in 2005 to SWAC chumps in '06 and now is on the road to becoming SWAC champs again in '07. My hat goes off to him."

Widespread support for Broadway could also be found on The News-Star's story chat and on various Web-based message boards.

"Broadway is well within his rights with what he said," OPLioninVA wrote on forums. "Elfrid Payton is a shining example of what is wrong with sports today: Overzealous fans that really need to either apply for the job, or have a seat. He and the others are an embarrassment to quality fans of college football programs all over the country."

Poster Yankkee added: "Coach Broadway is a class individual who deserves better treatment than this."

Asked again later about the incident, Broadway reiterated that he felt stiffer screening measures should be put in place to keep packs of roaming onlookers from impacting the game.

Grambling athletics director Troy Mathieu said the school had given out sideline passes to only a select few key alumni — including former players Trumaine Johnson and Doug Williams, who later coached at GSU from 1998-2003. Mathieu was unsure how others gained the necessary credentials to walk the sidelines.

"I fully support Coach Broadway and I understand his frustration," said Kenn Rashad, a 1990 Grambling graduate who owns the black college sports message board, where a lively discussion on Broadway's comments continued into Sunday.

"Unfortunately, in the game of college football, fans seem to forget what their role is," Rashad said. "That role does not include accosting a coach or player — especially right after an emotional loss. Considering that this is nothing new for Elfrid Payton, Coach Broadway is justified in his remarks."

Payton also confronted Williams after the 2003 Bayou Classic, a gut-wrenching three-point stumble that kept Grambling from an historic fourth consecutive conference championship game.

"What really disappoints me is that a former player from Coach Eddie Robinson's lineage was a major player in the group that embarrassed all true fans of Grambling," Watson said. "On a day in which we were honoring this great man, one of his former players acted in a manner that was the antithesis of what Coach stood for and tried to teach his players."

OPLioninVA, posting at, added: "Keep your head up Coach Broadway and staff. Although we did not win this game, I still see the big picture, and I know many others do, too."

Monday, October 06, 2008

Remembering: Grambling's Brandon Landers

Carroll's Landers picks Grambling
· Playing for Super Bowl quarterback Doug Williams played an important part in the decision. December 11, 2003

By Nick Deriso
Carroll High quarterback Brandon Landers, the area's top local offensive recruit, confirms that he has verbally committed to play for Doug Williams at Grambling State.

"To be coached by the first black quarterback to win the Super Bowl had something to do with it," Landers said. "He knows the game. I'd like to follow in his footsteps and do some of the things he's done at Grambling State University."

Williams has said that any prep signings this off-season would redshirt in 2004 behind senior Bruce Eugene, the top quarterback in the Southwestern Athletic Conference. Coach Jesse Smith has installed a similar spread offense at Carroll High.

"Whatever move he made, I'd support," Smith said of Landers' commitment. "But we do a lot of the same things that Grambling does. He will be in a system where he will throw the football. I believe, with the experience that he has gotten over the years, that this is as fine a program as he could be going to."

Landers also recognized the opportunity to quickly integrate into the SWAC's best passing offense the past two seasons.

"I feel like Grambling would treat me better," Landers said. "The offense they run is basically the same offense that we run."

Landers, who led Carroll to a second straight District 2-3A crown this season, finished his prep career with 2,302 yards on 140-for-245 passes, along with 16 TD passes and five interceptions. He was The News-Star/Glenwood SportsCare player of the week for Week 5 this season - after passing for 300 yards and a score against Ferriday, while also returning an interception for a touchdown.

"In my opinion, he had an outstanding year," said Smith. "He pretty much led the team. He was able to run the football and pass it too. He did everything we expected."

In his last high school game, the multi-talented Landers passed for 204 yards and ran for a score in a third-round playoff loss.. He also had 48 career tackles and three interceptions for Carroll.

Landers says he was recruited by McNeese State, Northwestern State, Louisiana-Monroe and Louisiana Tech. Others like Texas A&M were reportedly interested as well.

"But I never really considered anywhere else," Landers said. "I felt like Grambling fit me."

Landers follows in the footsteps of Grambling State legend James "Shack" Harris, who is also a Carroll High alum. Harris was the first black quarterback to be drafted into the NFL, playing for Buffalo, Los Angeles and San Diego.

Cooper's departure could shift QB status

Carroll High quarterback Brandon Landers could immediately move into the No. 2 slot at Grambling State. Coach Doug Williams granted two-year backup quarterback Gary Cooper a release on Monday.

"I'm not a guy who believes in a two-quarterback system," Williams said. "Somebody has to take the bull by the horns. It's unfortunate for Cooper, because he wants to play. But as long as Bruce is healthy, he's our starter."

Cooper had career numbers of 14-for-36 at GSU, with three interceptions and two scores.

Further back in the quarterback rotation are Texas freshmen Brandon Logan from San Antonio and Arnel Rolfe of Dallas. Neither has taken a game-day snap.

"They've got to step it up in the spring," Williams said.

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Landers learns another lesson the hard way
September 12, 2004

By Nick Deriso
NORMAL Ala. - The grounds crew at Louis Crews Stadium can thank Grambling State quarterback Brandon Landers for all the work facing them this morning.

I expect there are several freshman-shaped holes out there today.

Perhaps that was expected for Landers, who got his first collegiate start a year early when senior All-American Bruce Eugene was injured last week.

Still, the timing couldn't have been worse, as GSU arrived in Alabama to face one of the Southwestern Athletic Conference's most inventive and aggressive defenses.

Alabama A&M relentlessly harassed Landers. It threw everything at him - linebackers, safeties, the kitchen sink, other appliances. That ensured Landers wouldn't win the game, yet his fiery determination would again win over the coaches.

"We have believed that Brandon Landers could handle the things we do," said interim GSU coach Melvin Spears, who fell to 0-2 with the loss to Alabama A&M. "Brandon and Bruce worked closely together all summer. He has grasped the information at a very fast pace."

There were moments of shimmering promise, followed by thudding despair.

That's a freshman quarterback for you.

For instance, Landers took advantage of a blocked punt by Winnfield junior Donald Alexander on A&M's first possession of the third quarter, firing a brilliant pass to Mangham senior Chad White over the middle for a critical completion at midfield.

But the inevitable sack ended that drive. Landers ran right into the rush on that play, a rookie error.

He kept his head up.

"My athleticism will always help me," Landers said. "As I get more familiar with the offensive scheme, I will only get better."

As soon as Landers got going on Saturday, he would get leveled.

A sack - no surprise, that - by A&M's Cedric Harris killed the first promising drive of Landers' night in Alabama. After starting 0-of-4, Landers had finally completed an underneath pass to junior Henry Tolbert that turned into a 15-yard gain.

GSU didn't score, but Landers kept going. He kept getting hit, but he kept going.

With 6:03 left in the game, Grambling State had used all of its timeouts. This was how this tough night would end, in real time - a slow wait.

Somebody forgot to tell Landers.

With 54 seconds left, he was still flinging it. GSU's first 0-2 start since 1996 - when former coach Eddie Robinson lost his initial three contests on the way to a 3-8 record - would have to wait. Landers hit Tolbert for a 25-yard touchdown pass to bring the score to 21-9.

But, too often, even when Landers could get a throw off, a very young receiving group again dropped it. GSU was also without its top target from last year's A&M game, as Moses Harris joined Eugene with a season-ending injury during Week 1.

"It hasn't been roses for them. They've faced some challenges," said third-year Alabama A&M coach Anthony Jones, who had never before won against GSU - a streak that included the 2002 SWAC title game. "Grambling has enough guys on that team that are used to winning. One thing I know about winning, once you get that taste in your mouth, you don't roll over for anybody."

So A&M kept coming.

Sacks count against a team's rushing yardage on the official stat sheet, so it's no surprise that the Tigers ended up with a staggering minus-two yards in the first half. Junior Ab Kuaan's first-down yardage was leaking out with each defensive play on his quarterback.

Yet, Landers was always out there under center when the whistle blew, lined up again and ready to go. He prides himself on that.

"I lead by action," said Landers, The News-Star/Glenwood SportsCare Offensive Player of the Year as a senior at Carroll. "I've never been a very vocal person. So, I lead by what I do."

A big, tough unit, GSU's offensive line was simply outnumbered by A&M's zone-blitz scheme. It often had seven hats on eight defenders.

That's why Landers could have been confined to bed rest by a doctor and not spent as much time on his back. Adding insult to injury, Grambling State wore white - meaning those grass stains may never come out.

But Spears takes solace in that flickering passion from his first-year signal-caller. You won't find many players still gunning for the end zone with under a minute left in an already-decided game.

"He's very athletic, very versatile, with an outstanding arm," enthused the ever-upbeat Spears. "When the lights come on, he's a different kind of player. He has a flair as a leader. I think we are in good hands."

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Saving the day has been child's play for Grambling freshmen
September 20, 2004

By Nick Deriso
CINCINNATI- Remember when they used to make freshmen carry the older players' shoulder pads back in after practice?

Now, they're carrying the team.

Witness Grambling State's first win of the 2004 season. Quarterback Brandon Landers hands off to Landry Carter, who runs it in from four yards in the third quarter on Saturday against Bethune-Cookman, GSU's first points on the day.

Defensive end Jason Banks also notches two sacks for 14 yards in losses.

Landers tosses a 46-yard scoring strike to Clyde Edwards to get GSU to within two points.

Every one of the playmakers mentioned is a freshman. GSU would beat Bethune-Cookman 24-23 on Saturday in the Ohio Classic.

"I couldn't ask for anything better," said Landers, a Carroll High product named offensive player of the year just last spring by The News-Star. The ... high school ... offensive player of the year.

"To be on the Cincinnati Bengals field, being a young player," Landers marvelled from inside Paul Brown Stadium. "I've waited for this my whole life."

His whole life. Landers was born on Groundhog Day, Feb. 2, 1985.

But we've never seen anything like this before: Kid's stuff is now the stuff of legend. Landers has led GSU to 32 fourth-quarter points in three games.

"Leaders," Landers mused, and he couldn't be more right, "are born."

Born in the second Reagan administration.

And not just Brandon Landers, who replaced All-American Bruce Eugene after the senior suffered a season-ending knee injury in the first game of 2004.

First-year Georgia running back Danny Ware exploded for three scores against Georgia Southern. Tennessee's Brent Schaeffer became the first true freshman to start an SEC opener since 1945. A youngster named Darius Walker might have turned Notre Dame's season around with 115 rushing yards and two touchdowns in a second-week win over Michigan.

Landers' first start was somewhat less glamorous. But playing through it made him a better quarterback in Cincinnati.

"They were sending six or seven people at me last week (against Alabama A&M)," said Landers. "So (interim GSU) Coach (Melvin) Spears told me that we were going to the shotgun (against BCC), and that I should be patient and stay with it. He put the ball in my hands."

That Alabama A&M nightmare included just 11 completions on 40 tries. GSU didn't convert a single third-down - putting freshman punter Tim Manuel just one punt away from the school record for attempts in a game.

"Bouncing back from a performance like that," said Eugene, "is all about character."

Alabama A&M was credited with a five sacks, but Landers was hurried and pushed around all night.

"He's taken so many licks," said offensive coordinator Sammy White. "To keep getting up, that says a lot about him."

Landers would flourish Saturday in the shotgun, a scheme that made all the more sense when senior center Lance Wright left the game with an injury.

"What we were trying to do was to take some of the pressure off of Brandon," said Spears. "When you get down a couple of touchdowns, you've got to keep passing. But we wanted to give him a better opportunity. At halftime, we told him: `It's your show. Show us what you've got.' "

But just in case the freshmen get too comfortable, however, note that Landers' first collegiate win came with some veteran help.

Junior Henry Tolbert made a key scoring grab to narrow BCC's lead to two points in the third quarter. And Eugene attended Saturday's game, encouraging the team during warmups and helping out with playcalling upstairs with running backs coach Vyron Brown.

"We're going to keep him around," Spears said of Eugene, laughing. "He'll basically be our cheerleader - and he'll also help us with Brandon."

Saturday's game was Eugene's first since undergoing knee surgery a week ago on Thursday.

"I can help him, because I've been there," said Eugene, who was given wide latitude last season to audible from the line based on what he saw on the field. "That hands-on experience will make a difference."

A Landers scramble for a quick 53 yards seemed to loosen up this offense in the third quarter. The team's biggest second-half adjustment had to do with confidence.

"Those are the intangibles that Brandon brings to the table," said Spears. "He had great poise. In the end, he looked like Bruce Eugene back there - and that's a good comparison."

The move into the booth will also ensure that Eugene can stay for the entirety of the game, without enduring whatever pain comes from standing on the sidelines. Eugene, who moved around on crutches, is applying for another year of eligibility on a medical waiver.

"Everything is progressing very well for Bruce," said Spears, who is also taking a more prominent role in the offense, after concentrating on the defense early in the season. "As he heals, we'd like to give him an opportunity to look at the game from a different perspective. Hopefully, when he gets back, he will have a better understanding - and be a better player."

You could criticize GSU's hard-headed focus on making Landers pass. After all, he had attempted 62 throws in five quarters of play before arriving in Cincinnati. But whether they ran or he threw, there was going to be a learning curve.

"When you lose your trigger guy, it makes you a little stagnated - until you get the new trigger guy in place and working," said Spears. "I knew you would start seeing an outstanding quarterback soon - one who happens to be a freshman - in Brandon Landers."

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, 71201. Contact him at (318) 362-0233 or at

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Landers' stellar freshman season may not yield sophomore one
December 14, 2004

By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING - Another week brings another freshman of the year honor for Carroll High product Brandon Landers. Yet, he still doesn't know whether he will get to start again next season at Grambling State.

Landers, who was honored Saturday night by the Louisiana Sports Writers Association, took over when senior GSU quarterback Bruce Eugene went down in the third quarter of the 2004 season opener. Landers was also named freshman of the year by the Southwestern Athletic Conference.

"It never ran across my mind to win both awards," said Landers, who broke the school's single-season passing yards record for a freshman - set by Doug Williams in 1974. "You always set goals for a season - you know, once I got the starting job, I decided I wanted to win. But awards like this are a great feeling. I didn't even think I was going to play."

GSU defender Kenneth Pettway and place-kicker Brian Morgan, both seniors, also received first-team All-Louisiana honors from the LSWA, while sophomore offensive tackle Andre' Bennett was given an honorable mention.

The awards come as GSU awaits word on a medical exemption for Eugene. If the NCAA grants Eugene an extra year of eligibility, coaches have said Landers would be redshirted.

"We talked with the NCAA, and it's still under review," said interim GSU coach Melvin Spears. "If Bruce comes back, Landers will redshirt. He will get an opportunity to watch more, and to learn. But if Bruce doesn't come back, then Landers will be the incumbent in camp."

GSU signed LaMarque High product Larry Kerlegan out of Houston last season - who was ranked No. 11 nationally among dual-threat quarterbacks by - but grades kept him off the roster. Kerlegan is expected to be in camp this spring.

"I talked to Bruce the other day, and he still doesn't know whether he will be back or not. We'll wait and see," said Landers, who posted a 6-4 mark as a starter while completing 132-of-316 passes for 2,283 yards, along with 18 touchdowns against 15 interceptions. "In the meantime, I know we're going to start back up in January. I am going to work on getting stronger, on my technique. Redshirting, if that happens, could make me better - just sitting back and watching and learning. I could get more of the experience I need."

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GSU's quarterbacks battle as friends
Camp competition at Grambling is far from combative
August 17, 2005

By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING - There's a sure sign that Bruce Eugene is feeling it again.

Grambling State's former All American quarterback is trash talking once more during the team's stretching exercises before practice.

"This offense," Eugene was saying the other day, "has speed for sale."

GSU coach Melvin Spears has consistently hedged on how that return impacts his depth chart. After all, Brandon Landers rocketed to conference freshman of the year honors once Eugene lost his senior season to a knee injury in the 2004.

"Brandon did a wonderful job for us last year down the stretch," Spears said. "But when you talk about experience, Bruce Eugene knows the system. We will let the best guy play."

Landers has a different answer.

"I know what the situation is," he said. "Bruce is getting his old position back."

Even so, the expected creative tension hasn't followed.

In fact, these two remain friends. As they enter the practice field, one will say to the other: "Be perfect today."

"That way," Landers said, "we know we are pushing each other to do better. At the same time, I am trying to learn from him."

Eugene also says that competition hasn't gotten in the way of their relationship: "The whole thing of `let's be perfect' is that we are trying to make each other better. We get along just fine."

Eugene still wears a knee brace - though Spears says that's simply as a precaution.

"He's the only guy I've ever seen go through an ACL injury and not lose any flexibility," said Spears. "Bruce is better than he was before. First off, his rehab was extensive, but also he's a fast healer."

Questions about the knee haven't trumped Eugene's past performances, which likely pushed Grambling to the top of the Southwestern Athletic Conference's Western division in more than one preseason poll so far.

Grambling's career total offense leader with 10,172 yards, he was last seen as a junior in 2003 passing for 3,805 yards and 34 touchdowns. Eugene also ran for 412 yards - second most on the team - and another six touchdowns on the ground.

That makes Eugene, despite the fact that he spent the last season earning his degree, the most productive returning quarterback in Division I-AA.

Yet Landers never stopped working, even as a move to the No. 2 spot became clear.

The Carroll product paid particular attention to his upper-body strength this offseason, focusing on bench pressing on an incline and lifting by shoulder shrug. The result has been a sharper release, and better ball speed.

Spears, wary after an injury-marred 2004, said he won't consider redshirting Landers.

"The nature of the beast is that you never know how the game goes, and how it may fall," said Spears, who lost Eugene in the third quarter of the season opener last year.

Landers isn't interested either.

"A quarterback who redshirted might relax," said Landers, who threw for almost 2,300 yards as a freshman. "It's a mind thing. I'm not thinking about next year. I'm thinking about right now. That will help me stay ready, as always."

The No. 3 quarterback is a celebrated prep prospect, Larry Kerlegan of Houston's LaMarque High.

"You always have to think in terms of two or three years down the road," said Spears. "You've got to be prepared. Bruce Eugene won't be back - one way or another. Those other guys have to be ready to play."

Still, as even Landers admits, it's clear the team belongs to the likeable Eugene right now.

Eugene has always been gregarious, knowledgeable and well regarded, even if he is only just now completely inhabiting the leadership role.

"The kids really rally around Bruce," said GSU offensive line coach Carl Roberts. "He not only knows his own assignment, but also the linemen's assignment. He has that leadership quality."

Eugene earned a lot of credibility when he led Grambling to the 2002 championship, after a season behind Randy Hymes - quarterback on those 2000-01 title teams.

But Eugene gained real authority as a team captain when he wrestled down a more common nemesis: His weight.

"I know within the circle of this team, they believe in me," Eugene said. "That's what I go on."

Spears sent Eugene to the Duke University diet and fitness center over the summer, where he lost 25 pounds in just four weeks on a diet of 1,800 calories a day.

Eugene was just getting started. He's now dropped more than 40 pounds.

"In rehab, and while I'm lifting weights or walking, every time I get ready to eat something I shouldn't be eating, I think about the naysayers," said Eugene, who at one point ballooned up to a startling 308 pounds. "Everybody said I couldn't lose weight. Let them talk. I know in the end I will be standing on top."

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For Grambling State quarterback Brandon Landers ...
Waiting was the hardest part
March 15, 2006

By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING - Brandon Landers was brought in to be the Next Big Thing at Grambling State.

The Carroll High product expected to apprentice during the 2004 season behind record-smashing quarterback Bruce Eugene, then assume the spotlight.

Something happened on the way to his debut.

Eugene went down with a knee injury, and suddenly Landers - just months after playing Class 4A ball in high school - was under center.

It took time and adjustment for both Landers and the staff, but he eventually claimed conference freshman of the year honors after leading a newly run-oriented GSU to a winning season.

"My freshman year, they wanted give the ball to the veteran backs," Landers said. "Having guys like that, it took some pressure off of me."

Landers then got his belated redshirt, gaining more valuable experience, when Eugene was given a medical exemption before the 2005 campaign.

So, there's little drama in this: Landers is penciled in at starter as GSU's spring sessions get underway today.

The plot thickens, however, when examining how Landers' return could affect the playbook.

"We might put in a few wrinkles here or there to play up to Brandon's strengths," GSU coach Melvin Spears said. "But a year behind Bruce has given Brandon a much better grasp of the offense, both in terms of being able to make all the different adjustments and running the team more efficiently."

Landers, always gritty and confidant, says the days of running the ball to mask immaturity are over. He's ready to fit into a passing system that has established itself as the Southwestern Athletic Conference's most dangerous and entertaining.

"I don't know about any changes (to the scheme); I hope they keep it the same so we can keep rolling," Landers said.

Then, after some thought, he adds: "Playing behind a guy like Bruce, everyone will be expecting a whole lot of things. I'm just going to go out and play the game that I know how to play."

Questions about the offensive focus can be forgiven, even by some of the players, after the way Landers' presence in 2004 so radically altered Grambling's look.

His freshman campaign ended with redemptive win over Southern, but Landers had just 13 passing attempts on the day. (To put that into perspective, Eugene had as many tries by the first GSU possession of the second quarter in the 2005 Bayou Classic.)

Ab "Killer" Kuuan was the tip of the sword in this reworked ground attack, averaging 131 rushing yards a game over the final month of the season. The last time he and Landers shared the field, Kuuan was receiving his Bayou Classic MVP trophy after running for 126 punishing yards against Southern.

"That was my first question: Are we still going to have the same offense? Or are we going to run it?" said senior Henry Tolbert, who just set a new school record for receiving touchdowns in a season.

"The coaches feel like it's on him," Tolbert said. "If Brandon can show this spring that he can run the offense the way Bruce did, everything will be the same."

Spears said he has always known that Landers was physically gifted. He just felt Landers needed more time to adjust to the speed of decision-making in the college game.

He got that chance when Eugene returned for a rare sixth season of eligibility - though the bench wasn't always a comfy spot for a competitor like Landers.

"It was tough; that was my first time ever sitting out an entire season, but I learned a whole lot," said Landers, who earned offensive player of the year honors from The News-Star and Glenwood SportsCare in 2003.

"I paid attention to the game, learning about what was called on the field," he said. "I knew my role. I did what was asked."

In the end, Landers had a front-row seat as Eugene marched through the record books. A capstone came when Eugene smashed a 20-year-old Division I-AA mark for touchdown passes in a season during the SWAC championship win last December.

Landers found that, in the end, he had made a friend.

"We bonded together; we developed a really good friendship," Landers said. "I hope to be a leader and do the same things Bruce did. It was honor playing behind him."

Landers also grew closer to Tolbert, sure to be one of his primary targets in `06, over the past two seasons. That chemistry translates off the field too, where the two are roommates.

"I feel really good about Brandon taking over," Tolbert said. "I don't think I could feel any better about anybody. I was here when he first got here, so I've seen a lot of progress. Sitting behind Bruce was great for him. My expectations are really high coming in."

Look for a strong push for starting time from second-year passer Larry Kerlegan, a celebrated former Texas recruit. Grambling was also still in the market for another quarterback signee as late as last weekend.

But in the end, the stage is set. It's Landers' job to lose.

"Brandon Landers showed a lot of maturity last year in the way he handled things," Spears said. "It allowed him to learn a lot from Bruce Eugene. What we will do this spring is polish that. We're eager to see what he learned from the whole process."

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Landers lays down the law
Grambling QB interned as local marshal this summer
August 7, 2006

By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING — When Grambling State holds its first fall practice this afternoon, quarterback Brandon Landers will be the new sheriff in town.

Well, marshal, actually.

The Carroll product, a criminal justice major, spent the summer interning with Ouachita Parish marshal Wince Highshaw Jr. — a stint that included serving warrants and working court security.

Landers said that real-world experience uniquely prepared him to take over a leadership role as GSU quarterback.

And to continue in that role in his impoverished neighborhood when football is over.

"I'm the first person in my family to go to college," Landers said. "Doing something like this, going to school and working hard, it's a way to show younger people that success is not about drugs. I want to be a role model in the neighborhood."

Landers — friends have already taken to calling him "Officer Landers" — is by far the most experienced returning quarterback at Grambling.

Pushed into duty after an injury to the now-departed Bruce Eugene, a two-time Walter Payton Award finalist, Landers would eventually earn conference freshman of the year honors.

He struggled with the assignment early on, but showed flashes of the talent that only months before helped lead Carroll to a second straight District 2-3A crown.

Landers now stands 309 attempts, 131 completions and 17 touchdowns further along than sophomore Larry Kerlegan, GSU's backup when Eugene returned and Landers redshirted a year later.

In fact, Kerlegan has just one college completion on seven attempts — a touchdown pass late in that blowout win over Concordia, an over-matched NAIA team. Presumptive No. 3 Desmond Brentley is a true freshman out of Pittsburgh's Perry High.

Still, GSU coach Melvin Spears has stressed that this will be a competitive camp for Landers, with Kerlegan and Brentley getting their share of reps.

"Our goal was to bring in enough competition so that we could make certain that Brandon doesn't get complacent," Spears said. "We've got a couple of guys who can do that. We want to be competitive everywhere, at every position."

Later, Spears reiterates one of this off-season's early mantras: "Leadership has no seniority."

A visibly more mature Landers welcomes the challenge.

Time spent in local courtrooms, where he's gotten an up-close examination of how life can turn on a bad decision, along with a year behind Eugene helped reshape this flinty former high school star. Landers is focused, energetic, and a bit humbled.

"Some people from my neighborhood have asked me, how can you be a police officer with where you come from?" Landers said. "I want to show them you can make it out. You don't have to do illegal things to get there."

Landers was already something of a neighborhood hero, finishing his prep career with 2,302 yards and 16 touchdown passes to go with 48 career tackles and three interceptions as a defensive back for Carroll.

His senior season in 2003 included a 300-yard, one-touchdown passing day against Ferriday. He also returned an interception for a touchdown that night, on the way to <I>News-Star</I>/Glenwood SportsCare player of the week honors. Landers' final prep game was a third-round playoff loss, but he passed for 204 yards and ran for a score.

"He was able to run the football and pass it too," said Carroll coach Jesse Smith when Landers committed to Grambling. "He did everything we expected."

That led to offensive player of the year recognition at the All-Northeast banquet — though Landers couldn't attend because he was also a crucial contributor on the Bulldogs' basketball team, which was playing that night.

Recruiters, Landers said, came calling from ULM, Louisiana Tech, McNeese State, Northwestern State and Texas A&M. But he chose to stay close to home, hoping to play one day for former Grambling coach Doug Williams.

Landers figured to have some time to gather himself, since he arrived as Eugene entered what promised to be a heralded senior season. But in short order, Williams left for an executive job in the NFL — turning the reins over to Spears, his former offensive coordinator — and then Eugene blew out his knee in the season opener.

"Brandon did an outstanding job in 2004 when Bruce went down," Spears said. "He has a great feel for the game when the lights come on."

Still, the life lesson was clear: Be prepared.

Landers started contemplating on a longer timeline.

"You gotta think about life after football," he said. "The air might go out of the ball one day."

Landers said Highshaw, a family friend, helped him get the internship — and it's been something that helped Landers frame everything that's important right now, not just football.

"When I got into criminal justice, and found out the type of things that they do, I got really interested," Landers said. "Marshal Highshaw gave me the opportunity to get some hands-on training, and I've learned so much that will help me."

Landers took the summer to get in shape, and not just physically. That's something that will bolster a maturation process his coach thinks is critical for Grambling's success on the field this year.

"He's learned the system; he has the tangibles," Spears said of Landers. "It's just going to be a matter of how quickly he can show that on the field."

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Landers handled it all on and off the field
September 4, 2006

By Nick Deriso
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — The context surrounding Grambling State quarterback Brandon Landers' numbers on Saturday makes them all the more impressive.

While attempting to mediate an argument, Landers saw his brother murdered and his cousin critically wounded in his hometown of Monroe just two Fridays ago. Yet, he still threw for 273 yards and four touchdowns against Hampton at legendary Legion Field.

"I tried to go on with my everyday life," said Landers, a former Carroll High standout. "I tried to stay close to my team and my coaches, really just to take my mind off of things. Coach kept telling me that everything happens for a reason. I just looked at is as motivation."

Perhaps accordingly, Landers had his struggles, from a one-pass possession stopped on an interception to several attempts that badly overshot receivers.

But in the end, he was efficient enough to put the team in position to win — even if it didn't work out that way — and he did a good job of distributing the ball, hitting four different receivers for touchdown passes.

"He's had some ups and downs the week, certainly," GSU coach Melvin Spears said. "But he worked hard, and he executed for the most part. It's a whole lot for a young man to have on his shoulders. I'm ready proud of him."

The funeral for Frank Landers, 18, of Monroe, is set for Tuesday, Brandon Landers said.

Tallying it up: Hampton got big numbers courtesy of its big stars against Grambling, from NFL prospect Justin Durant — who led the team with eight tackles and 2½ for a loss — to running back Alonzo Coleman.

Coleman, the MEAC's preseason offensive player of the year, amassed 78 yards on 12 carries, despite missing the latter part of the game to injury. Van Morgan took over and added another 83 yards on 14 carries.

Princeton Shepherd left the game as well, but still passed for a team-best 120 yards, along with a touchdown. T.J. Mitchell spelled Shepherd and connected on 6-for-16 attempts for 89 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.

Marquay McDaniels was stellar, with 113 yards and a score at wideout, 48 yards on punt returns, and 8 yards rushing on three tries.

Shepherd (passing), Coleman (rushing), McDaniels (receiving) and Durant (tackles and sacks) were the team leaders last year, as well.

Sweet home, Alabama: Six Grambling teammates played for linebackers coach Andre Robinson during a previous tenure at Birmingham's Parker High School.

They include: linebackers Brandon Arnold and Josh Bester; center Tavarus Cockrell; wide receivers Reginald Jackson; Xavier Jackson and Henry Tolbert; and defensive lineman Donald Williams.

Senior running back Ab Kuuan is also from nearby Sylacauga, Ala.

They'll be headed right back this week, as Grambling returns for a rematch of last December's SWAC Championship Game against Alabama A&M.

"We've got to come out and take care of A&M," said safety Bryan Langford. "We've got to be ready, even if it goes to overtime, to go the distance."

Tolbert had four catches for 78 yards and a touchdown at Legion Field. Kuuan had 37 yards on 17 carries and a special-teams tackle.

Bester had six tackles, including an assist for a loss; Williams had four, with one for a loss.

Kuuan and Tolbert were pregame team captains, as well.

Gave them five: Hampton and Grambling shared the Sheridan Broadcasting Network's black college national title in 2005. But the Pirates have owned Grambling as of late.

GSU actually has a 57-25 overall record against Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, but it has fallen to 2-6 all time against Hampton — including five losses in a row.

But GSU didn't go easy, fighting until the last play of the game as it went to overtime.

"It's what you expected," Landers said. "It was a hard-fought battle to the end. Hopefully, we gave the people what they came out to see, two great teams trying to be victorious."

You have to go all the way back to former GSU coach Eddie Robinson's 1994 team to find a win — and it was a squeaker, too: Grambling won 32-29.

Spears has lost to HU three times, twice as a offensive coordinator in 1998-99 and then this year as head coach. GSU, under Doug Williams, lost by scores of 28-15 and 27-7.

Grambling is now 2-2 on ESPN affiliates since 2003, beating Alabama State and Alabama A&M last year and falling to San Jose State in '03 and Hampton over the weekend.

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Landers back as GSU's starting QB
October 11, 2006

By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING — Three games into Grambling State's two-quarterback experiment, the race is a dead heat.

Larry Kerlegan and Brandon Landers, both redshirt sophomores, have each shown the ability to take charge — and to take a leave of absence.

Kerlegan was the dynamo at Houston, winning a weekly Southwestern Athletic Conference award while Landers posted negligible stats. The roles were reversed at Mississippi Valley State, where the opposing coaches clearly schemed to stop Kerlegan and Kerlegan alone.

The two passers also shared duties, though they had more similar success, in a rout against Prairie View in between.

"I think they are getting there," GSU coach Melvin Spears said. "We're still looking for a little more continuity."

Landers will get the start this week against Arkansas-Pine Bluff, as first reported at www. on Tuesday morning. But Spears said that Kerlegan will again spell him at quarterback.

Situations, Spears said, will dictate who plays and when.

"It's a studying process," he said, "and I think Brandon is a little further along. That's why he's getting a few more reps."

Landers, who won SWAC freshman of the year honors while subbing for the injured Bruce Eugene at Grambling in 2004, has played with renewed vigor since Kerlegan hit the field. The competition seems to have emboldened both to work harder.

Still, add in the bye week, and it's been a month since these two began splitting duties and the numbers still don't provide an easy answer as to who should start.

The efficiency ratings are lopsided in Kerlegan's direction, with a 68 percent completion rate compared with 53 percent. But Landers has piled up nearly twice as much passing production. Through this week, he has 882 yards and nine passing touchdowns while Kerlegan has 418 yards and 4 scores.

That means they'll continue to share time, Spears said.

"We're not asking them to win the game, just to manage it and get the ball to our receivers and running backs," Spears said.

Kerlegan got 285 of those passing yards against Houston, while Landers went 0-for-3. Landers then had 213 yards in the air last week at Valley, while Kerlegan had minus-2.

In Dallas against Prairie View, they almost perfectly split 297 total passing yards, as Kerlegan sparked the offense with 172 yards.

Again, no clear frontrunner.

Kerlegan is the team's second-leading rusher with 180 yards, but Landers is the only one of the two with a score on the ground.

And so it goes.

"Larry Kerlegan throws the ball just as well," Spears said, "He just needs to continue to learn the system. Brandon can run too, though he's not as a fast as Kerlegan. They both have things we like. That's why we'll continue to use both."

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AGENT OF CHANGE: Monroe's Landers settles in with new Grambling staff, playbook
August 5, 2007

By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING — Brandon Landers, now a redshirt junior, has seen it all during his time at Grambling State.

He's been the green freshman, unexpectedly inserted in 2004 when GSU's record-smashing passer Bruce Eugene blew out a knee.

He's been the camp underdog, fighting to get that same job back, when Eugene returned.

Once relied upon, in 2005 Landers was eventually redshirted.

He's been the presumptive No. 1 himself, struggling in 2006 to fight off a flinty backup.

Today, the Monroe native is, simply, the starter.

"I always live by the idea of being ready for anything," said Landers, a criminal justice major and volunteer with the Marshal's Office. "Things will come at you. I am making the necessary adjustments, but I don't think of it as a difficult thing. Football is football."

Landers' career has been the definition of things coming right at you. He is, in fact, the first quarterback to start consecutive seasons at Grambling since '04.

Then coming off All-Northeast offensive player of the year honors at Carroll, Landers was recruited in 2003 by Doug Williams, played in 2004 and '06 under Melvin Spears and will finish his career under new Grambling coach Rod Broadway.

"Brandon has something about him that you can't help but like," Broadway said. "He has shown some leadership skills. The guys have taken to him, and he's a nice guy to be around."

The first transition was largely seamless, since Spears had run Williams' offensive for six seasons before succeeding him as head coach.

Broadway, however, is installing a completely new look — one that will test both Landers' decision making and his ability to manage the playcalling in a variety of offensive situations.

Landers, bolstered by the new coaches' confidence in him, remains steadfastly optimistic as he faces perhaps his most rigorous challenge yet.

"We're excited about being back at it," Landers said. "We're bonding as a team, trying to get better. You can sense the change, and the excitement about the coaching staff. I feel a difference already in the team."

Landers was productive last season, averaging 194.4 yards per game. A highpoint was his 350-yard passing performance at home against Jackson State, which earned Landers Southwestern Athletic Conference player of the week honors. He also passed for 17 scores, which ranked second in the league.

The offense's troubles at closing out games contributed to Grambling's disastrous 3-8 record, but it still would finish with a SWAC-best average of 348.3 yards per game.

New offensive coordinator James Spady loses six starters from that group, but can find some solace in the return of Landers and senior receiver Clyde Edwards, his favorite target.

Both have been meeting three to four times a day, Landers said, as a new playbook has been installed. Gone is the flashy go-for-broke style associated with Spears' tenure.

This offense will certainly take its shots, but it's more in keeping with the pro-style offense that Williams always favored.

"It's different from last year, when we were wide open," Landers said. "This is more of a set-up type offense. We won't be stuck on the approach of just getting the big play."

That puts Landers in a place he's never been, having been asked to pass upwards of 50 times in games against Alabama A&M (his first start) and Jackson State in 2004. Landers never stopped competing, and eventually rose to Southwestern Athletic Conference and Louisiana Sports Writers Association freshman of the year honors.

He finished with a school-record 2,283 passing yards, besting a freshman mark that had stood since Williams's debut in 1974 under Eddie Robinson.

A highlight of that initial campaign came during the season-ending Bayou Classic when, in a style that could become familiar under Broadway, Landers attempted fewer than 20 passes as GSU slowly suffocated Southern.

"We're not asking him to win the game for us," Broadway said. "We want him to learn how to manage a game. Once he understands that, along with his continued growth as a player, he should be in pretty good shape — because if you have a triggerman, on all levels of football, then you have a chance to compete."

Landers, matured in a crucible of change, is taking it all in stride.

"I like the new look," Landers said, though he bristles at any suggestion that this offense might lack the implicit danger of GSU's old attack. "If you sleep on us, we'll hit you big."

Senior Larry Kerlegan, an athlete of uncommon playmaking ability, is listed as the backup on Grambling State's fall depth chart.

Over seven games last season, Kerlegan passed for 633 yards and seven scores, while running for another 215 yards to rank second on the team in rushing. That led to a move by the staff to work Kerlegan into the wideout rotation.

"He plays the way you want kids to play, and that's fast," first-year Grambling coach Rod Broadway said. "We're going to use him in a variety of offensive situations."

Sophomore Al Hawkins, the former minor-league baseball player, is the only other quarterback on the roster. He didn't attempt a pass in the Black and Gold game.

"The guys who were backups in the spring will have to step up in the fall and get better," Broadway said. "They'll have to perform well or get out of the way for some of the freshmen we're going to give a chance to play."

Grambling's remaining quarterbacks from the 2006 roster included Desmond Brentley, who has apparently transferred; and Zak Latif, who's now listed at tight end. --Nick Deriso,

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Academics could sideline Grambling's senior quarterback
July 26, 2008

By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING — Monroe product Brandon Landers, a three-year letterman at Grambling State, will likely miss next season over an academic issue.

"I'm trying to see what I can do," the quarterback said. "I didn't get the grade I needed (in a history class), so it's up in the air right now if I will even play."

Landers, a fifth-year senior after redshirting in 2005 at Grambling, most recently posted career highs for completions, yards and touchdowns in the inaugural season under GSU coach Rod Broadway. That helped the Tigers advance to their fifth Southwestern Athletic Conference Championship Game since 2000, before falling to Jackson State last December.

Landers' absence opens the door to a spirited competition at the position just weeks before the year's much-anticipated opening kick. Grambling was again picked to win the SWAC's Western crown in preseason polling at the league's media day.

Greg Dillon, a 6-0, 200-pound sophomore, is listed as Landers' backup in the 2008 season prospectus. The academic status of Larry Kerlegan, the No. 2 Grambling passer in 2005-07, is also unclear.

GSU signed three prep athletes with quarterbacking experience, including Rayville product Justin Higgins. The 6-2, 185-pounder passed for more than 6,000 yards, rushed for nearly 2,000 yards and scored 60 touchdowns in high school.

El Paso, Texas, product Brendon Crawford (2,207 passing yards and 20 scores as a senior) and South Boston, Va., product Rodale Pippen (who split time at wideout, recording nearly 5,000 yards of total offense last year) were announced in GSU's most recent signing day.

The most intriguing option might be J.P. Tillman, a redshirt freshman transfer from the University of Missouri who has been participating during informal summer 7-on-7 drills at Grambling. The 6-3, 250-pound prospect was a three-sport high school athlete, and ranked No. 22 in the nation among dual-threat quarterbacks by as a senior.

Landers said it was unclear if an appeal could be made on his behalf. He is pursuing a degree in criminal justice.

"They are trying to do all they can do," Landers said. "I hope to know more by Tuesday (when Grambling football players report for fall practice sessions)."

Grambling coaches were unavailable for comment on Friday afternoon. The team opens this season Aug. 30 in Reno at the University of Nevada.

Landers, who was named prep offensive player of the year by The News-Star after his senior season at Carroll High in 2003, ranks third all-time among Grambling passers with 7,024. He needs 1,388 to pass Doug Williams for second place.

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Final narrative for Grambling's Landers hasn't been written
August 1, 2008

By Nick Deriso
Brandon Landers' time at Grambling, as impressive as it is statistically, will always be one of lost promise. But his narrative is far from finished.

Landers initially signed as a prep quarterback with Doug Williams, only to see his would-be mentor leave for an NFL job. Then he was pushed too early, and with too little instruction, into the starting position as a true freshman in 2004 when Bruce Eugene went down. Then pushed back into a redshirt, and largely ignored, a season later when Eugene returned. Then pushed around as a redshirt sophomore in 2006, having belatedly retaken the starting position without ever having been properly prepared for it.

He remained erratic, able to gut out terrific wins (Bethune-Cookman in Cincinnati, Bayou Classic XXXI) on the one-hand but still subject to deflating breakdowns (memorable OT losses to Alabama A&M and Hampton, last year's Southwestern Athletic Conference title match).

Landers finally caught a decent break with the hiring of yet another new staff before his junior season. He was on his third head coach, but seemed to finally connect.

That's when the interior of his line fell apart. Landers withstood the kind of blows that would bring down buildings, and occasionally fell into old habits.

Grambling ended up one win shy of a championship. But Landers had become a vastly improved passer, a stronger locker room presence and, most importantly, an emerging leader off the field: He planned a successful offseason mentoring camp, volunteered as a marshal at the courthouse.

"He wants to become an inspiration for kids in this area by becoming a mentor," said Esther Gallow, who has done so much important outreach work in the economically depressed Booker T. community that Landers was raised in. "He's saying, even if I don't go pro, I still want to show young people that they can get out of the neighborhood, get a college education and do something great with their lives."

Sports fans don't like to hear it, but that's the important stuff.

Just like that, though, and just 1,400 yards shy of Doug Williams' No. 2 all-time passing marks at Grambling, Landers came up short on a summer course — and a football career that never reached its full potential is apparently over.

Yet what Landers accomplished, despite so much adversity (both the crushing poverty of his childhood environment and then at GSU), shouldn't be defined in total by the number of Bayou Classics or SWAC titles won or lost.

Landers is one credit away from doing something more notable than winning that last game on the gridiron. He has dreams of becoming a law enforcement officer, and then a community leader of enduring substance — and that's more urgently needed than another shiny item for the program's trophy case.

When he does all of that, and I think he will, football will perhaps finally be put in perspective as just one part of Brandon Landers' still-evolving story.