Thursday, April 23, 2009
Grambling seeks redemption in title bout
December 10, 2007
By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING — A month and a half ago, Grambling State looked like an unstoppable force.
Winners of seven straight, GSU had clinched a berth in the Southwestern Athletic Conference Championship Game on Nov. 3, even while a gaggle of teams on the other side of the bracket were still jockeying for position.
First-year coach Rod Broadway's lone loss on the season was against upper-classification Pittsburgh. His team's average margin of victory was a comfortable 18 points a night.
Grambling hasn't won since — falling 28-14 to ULM, a second Football Bowl Subdivision foe, on Nov. 10 and then 22-13 to Louisiana SWAC rival Southern on Nov. 24.
Now the title match looms this Saturday at Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala.
"They know what's at stake in this game," Broadway said. "We've been talking about a championship all season. That's our goal. We've just got to play a little bit better."
Jackson State earned a chance to face Grambling for the league crown with a 3-1 finish, a run that included an emotional win over its own in-state league rival, Alcorn State.
GSU is still a respectable 8-3 overall — and 8-1 in SWAC play — but appears to have lost whatever momentum November once promised.
Broadway remains focused on the big picture.
"If you would have asked us at the beginning of the year, if we felt like 8-3 was a successful year, we would have said 'yes,'" Broadway said. "We definitely didn't like the way the last games unfolded. But competing with a I-A team doesn't happen very often. I still thought we had a chance to beat Monroe, and we had a chance to beat Southern. We just didn't play very well. I think we lost focus a little bit."
It's not just that Grambling hasn't won a game since defeating Alabama State to clinch the title berth on Nov. 3. It's that the Tigers have looked like a completely different ball club in the two losses that followed.
GSU averaged 30 points a game through the win at Alabama State, but has scored just two touchdowns a night since.
A defense that had held opponents to 14 points a contest before Nov. 3 is now surrendering 25 points every time it takes the field. In fact, that unit has given up an average of 98 yards more per game against ULM and Southern than it had over Grambling's previous nine opponents.
Special teams breakdowns have also suddenly begun to plague the team.
The result is GSU's first multi-game losing streak since Broadway took over in the offseason.
"We know what we need to do," said a determined Brandon Landers, the junior Grambling quarterback. "We're in an uplifted mood. We just want to send the seniors out with a championship."
The team, as Landers reminds, still has a meaningful shot at redemption. If Grambling were to complete its season with a win on Saturday, its late-season swoon would be all but forgotten.
"We're pleased — and disappointed — with the year so far," Broadway said. "We'd like to be 9-0 in the league. You can't be too disappointed in losing one conference game. I think in most conferences in the country, if you told them you were 8-1, most people would be pleased. We're disappointed that we lost to Southern, but we're pleased with the direction we are going. We are in the championship game. That's what you play for."
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Quick slants: Grambling football/SWAC Championship Game
December 7, 2007
By Nick Deriso
In a way, first-year Grambling coach Rod Broadway isn't surprised that his team's seven-game winning streak came to an end.
"It gets harder every week," he said. "Every time you win, it gets harder the next week. We have a saying: 'Big game this week.' We say that every week, and they don't get bigger than the next one."
Grambling is preparing for the eighth Southwestern Athletic Conference Championship Game, held Dec. 15 at Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala., against Jackson State.
The two teams are in far different places emotionally.
Jackson comes into the match on this nearly perfect 3-1 run — including a season-ending romp over in-state SWAC rival Alcorn State — that helped clinch the Eastern Division crown.
Grambling, on the other hand, hasn't won a game since Nov. 3, a skid that includes tough losses to nearby out-of-conference opponent ULM and then Louisiana league rival Southern.
"As a coach, you are going to lose," said Broadway. "You've got to learn from it. We're trying to learn from these losses, and hopefully our players can learn from them as well."
This will be GSU's fifth appearance in SWAC championship game history, and Jackson's second. Grambling is 4-0, while JSU is 0-1.
There's that pressure again.
"The more you win, the bigger each game gets," Broadway said. "Our kids are starting to understand that. They're starting to get a feel for what we are trying to do, and where we are trying to go with this program.'
NO PLACE LIKE DOME
One of the principal drawbacks of the open-air Legion Field, historic though it may be, has been the reluctance of some SWAC fans to endure the wintery conditions associated with the December playing date.
There has been talk, for years, of attaching a dome to the Alabama landmark -- and that project appears to finally be nearing reality.
The Birmingham City Council this week approved a new plan from Mayor Larry Langford to increase local sales taxes by 1 cent on the dollar, as well as double business licensing fees, with proceeds going toward a new roof at the facility, among other projects.
Officials said the increases, slated to take effect on Jan. 1, would provide $64 million to support $500 million in construction bonds.
Legion Field, originally built in 1926, now seats 71,600 after the 2005 removal of a decaying upper deck. Artificial turf was later installed.
It's perhaps best known as the former home of the storied Iron Bowl rivalry between Alabama and Auburn (1948-88, 1991), as well as the Hall of Fame Bowl (1977-85). Alabama-Birmingham still plays its home football games at the stadium, which was also host to a Rolling Stones in 1994 and soccer events associated with the 1996 Olympics and 2005 World Cup.
LET'S PLAY TWO
Under the SWAC's soon-to-be-scrapped nine-game mandate, the league's championship contest is guaranteed to be a rematch every season.
In preparing a second time for Jackson State, however, Grambling players are being careful not to get too caught up in their 30-20 win back on Oct. 20.
"We've watched our game against them," said senior GSU receiver Clyde Edwards, "and we'll try to work through our own mistakes. But we're also watching games they played after us to see what they've done later."
Among those mistakes for Grambling: Jackson quarterback Jimmy Oliver passed for 328 yards as his offense averaged more than 6 yards per play, the second worst performance of the year for GSU against league opponents behind Arkansas-Pine Bluff.
Grambling didn't score an offensive touchdown after the 12:29 mark in the second quarter, and was also just 4-of-7 in the red zone -- a performance that has contributed to its middle-of-the-pack No. 4 conference ranking in that stat.
A LIGHT SCHEDULE
The team practiced just three times this week in an effort to allow for study time during finals week.
"You can't drill too much, because of exams," Broadway said. "The most important thing for them is to finish strong in their academics."
He said Grambling would return to its normal game-week practice schedule next week.
KEEPING UP WITH JONES
Alabama A&M coach Anthony Jones, a two-time finalist for the Grambling job, has signed an extension through 2011.
The protracted A&M negotiations actually began last February, and the school's board of trustees approved the new contract over the summer. But Jones' new deal wasn't completed until four days after he met with officials from Western Carolina about the vacant position there.
Jones, a teammate of ex-Grambling quarterback and coach Doug Williams on the 1988 Super Bowl champion Washington Redskins, has won three Eastern Division titles — finishing as SWAC runner-up to GSU in 2002 and '05 before besting Arkansas-Pine Bluff last season for the league crown. His six-year record at A&M is 49-21.
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Line play has contributed to Grambling's sputtering offense
December 11, 2007
By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING — They're up front about Grambling State's late-season offensive struggles.
They start, well, up front.
"It's been our issue over the last three games: We can't protect very well," said first-year GSU coach Rod Broadway. "We knew at the beginning of the season that we would have some issues up front, and it's started to show. We're playing with an offensive line that's got to get better."
Grambling lost 25 letter winners last offseason, and no where was that exodus more deeply felt than along the offensive line — which lost three of five starters, including perennial all-conference tackles Andre Bennett and Derrek Governor.
But the remade group, led by senior center Tavarus Cockrell, was unbent. Inspired by the uptempo style of its new position coach, offensive coordinator James Spady, the group quickly jelled.
In fact, junior quarterback Brandon Landers was so well protected that he went four games without being sacked. That stretch included the Oct. 20 win over Jackson State — GSU's opponent this Saturday in the Southwestern Athletic Conference Championship Game, held at Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala.
Something happened, however against Alabama State on Nov. 3, though it was understandably lost in the hoopla of clinching the Western Division crown and a berth in this title match.
Grambling won the game, but gave up three sacks. The trend continued in subsequent contests, both losses, at ULM and against Southern.
Landers has been tackled a total of 14 times in 2007, and nine of those sacks have come since Nov. 3.
"We've been struggling for the last two or three games," Cockrell said. "We watch the film, and our receivers are open all the time. We just don't give him enough time. We haven't been holding them off long enough."
Landers is unwilling to place the blame on any one portion of the offense, preferring instead to talk in general terms about improving.
"Nobody is pointing any fingers," he said. "We just need to go in with a good game plan and a good attitude and prepare to win. The mood has been good in the locker room. Nobody is down on anybody."
Still, as Landers has been put under increasing pressure, the offense has sputtered.
Inconsistency up front has slowed the running attack, too. Freshman Frank Warren, who had four games with 90 or more yards before Nov. 3, has totaled 108 yards in the three games since.
In fact, three of Grambling's four worst days on offense in 2007 have come over this span, with only the loss at Pittsburgh in September featuring fewer yards.
Grambling has been 1-of-4 in red zone chances, while Landers tossed five of his total 15 interceptions on the year.
"Brandon is playing well, but he's started getting beat up," Broadway said. "My hat's off to that kid, because he's taken some shots. We've got to do a better job of protecting him — because when we give him some time, he's a good player."
Members of the line — which also features tackles Everett Edwards and Randall Bennett with guards Revay Smith and Muhammad Karim — are at a loss to explain the downturn.
They may have worn down. Or opponents may have finally gathered enough information on the reworked offense to better defend against it.
Nothing has changed in the way they prepare. Cockrell is also quick to praise Spady.
"Seems like teams have found some way to beat us," Cockrell said. "Our problem has been picking up twists and blitzes. Our coach does a heck of a job. It just seems like at game time, something happens."
Broadway said the staff is considering a few new looks for Saturday's game, in the hopes of better protecting Landers.
"We've had some issues up front," Broadway said. "They've got to get better. But we may also have to go with max protection and rely on (senior receiver) Clyde (Edwards) to make some plays downfield for us."
Cockrell, for his part, is well aware of how critical his unit is to the offense's success: Landers' quarterback efficiency rating has dropped an average of 45 points in games this year where he has been sacked two or more times.
"We've got to pick it up a little bit," Cockrell said. "This is our last game, and it all boils down to the offensive line."
FIVE GRAMBLING PLAYERS HONORED
Grambling State had five players named All-Southwestern Athletic Conference, including three first-team members, on Monday.
Grambling's first-teamers were: OL Tavarus Cockrell, WR Clyde Edwards and DB Zaire Wilborn. Its second-team honorees were WR Reginald Jackson and RB Frank Warren.
Alabama and Southern both had nine players earn either first- or second-team All-Southwestern Conference honors to lead all teams.
The teams were selected by league coaches and sports information officials along with selected members of the media.
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Renewed focus has earned dividends for Grambling's Banks
December 13, 2007
By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING — When first-year Grambling coach Rod Broadway arrived, he got an early scouting report on returning senior defender Jason Banks.
Not much of it was good.
"We heard so much about what he couldn't do," Broadway said. "Or — wouldn't do."
The 6-5, 300-pound Banks possessed an outsized skill set. No one argued with that.
After all, Banks entered this season with 99 career tackles, and led all linemen last season with 29.
The question was whether he would give the kind of consistent effort required to be a team leader.
Banks said it all started with questions about the defensive playbook. Small doubts turned into sweeping philosophical differences.
That fractured locker room played a key role in last year's 3-8 debacle, Banks said. In the end, this defense looked nothing like the 2005 edition that helped Grambling win 11 games and the Southwestern Athletic Conference championship.
"We believed in each other through last year," Banks said. "We just didn't believe in our scheme. There were holes."
A remade staff, and a renewed run-stopping attitude, have since led GSU back to the title game. Jackson State awaits on Saturday at Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala.
It's clear now that Banks viewed the transition in Grambling coaching staffs as a chance to start over — on the field and off.
He was the first player to speak to Broadway at his introductory press conference, striding over to introduce himself and talk about the upcoming season.
He and Broadway ended up talking instead about academics. Banks, a criminal justice major, listened earnestly — and he impressed his new coach.
Banks hasn't stopped impressing him, either.
"I don't know who they were talking about," Broadway says of the offseason doubters. "I am extremely proud of Jason Banks."
Banks has developed a symbiotic relationship with fellow tackle Melvin Matthews. Together with ends John Scroggins and Christian Anthony, they transformed one of the SWAC's most sluggish defenses into one of its best.
GSU ranks second in the league against the rush, after finishing dead last in 2006. Five opponents so far have been held to less than 100 yards rushing, with three managing 30 yards or less — including Jackson State back on Oct. 20.
"The scheme we have now has everybody accounting for everybody," Banks said. "We all lean on each other to make plays. Melvin might ask me to help out, if he sees a certain alignment, or I might ask him. We're working together."
Though it struggled against Southern, Grambling has more often been at its best during critical games. The defense 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 this berth in the SWAC Championship Game.
At the center of that new defensive fire stands the unlikeliest of sparks, Banks.
The Baton Rouge native has gotten stronger as the season has gone on, clogging the middle while making 15 of his 21 total tackles over the past four games. That's perhaps meant less than his vocal direction: Banks has become the heart and soul of this run defense.
"That's why we told the guys, from Day 1, that we would be starting with a clean slate," Broadway said. "I don't care what people say about you. We will let you prove what kind of person you really are."
Banks said the first inkling of Grambling's defensive resurgence came during its first spring sessions under Broadway and first-year defensive coordinator Clifford Yoshida.
"We showed each other that we could stop our offense," Banks said. "We started feeling like we could go out and stop anybody. We started believing in the new scheme."
Banks is the best individual example of how this defense has redeemed itself over the 2007 campaign. He's not only made good on a career some thought was lost to underachievement, but also put his team in a position to win its second conference crown in three seasons.
"We are extremely proud of the way he has performed, and the way he has grown as a football player and as a person," Broadway said. "You've heard this before: It's not how you start, but how you finish."
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Grambling focuses on return game, protection
December 14, 2007
By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING -- Surprising breakdowns on special teams highlighted Grambling State's emotional loss in the Bayou Classic.
But memorable misfires in the kicking game, though they led to six points in a tightly contested win for Southern, weren't the only concern this week.
"We had some problems with our kicking game that we hadn't had before," said first-year Grambling coach Rod Broadway. "They also put us in some holes that we couldn't get out of."
Time and again, Jaguars' talented punter Josh Duran forced the offense to begin drives from deep in its own territory. In fact, Grambling's best starting point in the second half was its own 33.
Four third-quarter punts, as Southern gathered itself for the win, put the Tigers at their own 14-, 13-, 2- and 17-yard lines. Southern averaged 48 yards per attempt, compared with 29 for GSU.
"Field position played a big role in that game," said senior receiver Reginald Jackson. "That limited our opportunities. If we would have had better field position it might have been a different outcome."
Jackson has been used at returner, as has Clyde Edwards, Kovarus Hills and Kiare Thompson, among others.
The group ranked No. 3 in the league with an average of 11 yards per punt return. But they again will face a stiff challenge. JSU's fourth-ranked attack features sophomore Brett Bennett, who averages nearly 40 yards a punt.
Jackson has the best numbers for Grambling, with 17 returns for 170 yards. Edwards returned four punts for a respectable 49 yards against Southern.
Grambling will also have to focus on better protecting its own kicker, senior Tim Manuel.
Southern's Joe Manning blocked a third-quarter punt deep in Grambling territory, leading to a safety. Jarmaul George also blocked an extra-point attempt after GSU's final score of the day.
A QUICK ERRAND BEFORE THE GAME
There will be pomp, circumstance and then a bus ride.
Receivers Clyde Edwards and Reginald Jackson were two of the Grambling seniors reportedly set to graduate during ceremonies this morning on campus.
Fall commencement begins at 10 a.m. in the newly opened Assembly Center, with keynote speaker Leon Whittaker, dean emeritus of graduate studies and a GSU alumnus.
In all, 275 undergraduate and graduate students will receive their degrees. Also included in that group is defender Donald "Duck" Williams, among others.
The football players will then bus over separately to Birmingham, Ala., for the league title game. The rest of the team left on Thursday.
A LEARNING EXPERIENCE?
Grambling's players sounded refocused this week, as they prepared with both energy and emotion for Saturday's game.
Losing will do that, right?
"Losing is never good thing," GUS coach Rod Broadway said, "but you can learn something from it if you approach it the right way."
Broadway, for one, has taken the team's two-game slide personally. He has driven himself, the team and his staff with fiery vigor all week.
"I hate losing," he admits. "It drives me nuts. But if you coach long enough, you've got to deal with it. We're hoping to learn from its as a staff, and hopefully the players can learn from it, too."
FAMILIAR FOES, CHAMPS
Looking back, between 1965 and 1990, only four championship trophies from the SWAC didn't have the name of one of these two programs etched on the front. (Alcorn won each of them, in 1969-70, '76 and 1984.)
Grambling and/or Jackson has won won seven of the last 15, too. In all, Jackson State can boast an impressive 15 conference championships, while Grambling has 21 -- with 17 of them coming under the late coaching great Eddie Robinson, who passed away in April of this year at age 88.
The SWAC then renamed its championship trophy after Robinson, who established a still-standing Division I record for career wins over a 57-season career at GSU. The first rechristened award will be presented on Saturday.
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OPENING DRIVE: Grambling vs. Jackson State, SWAC Championship Game
December 15, 2007
By Nick Deriso
Grambling (8-3) vs. Jackson State (7-4)
Kickoff: 1 p.m. today, Legion Field, Birmingham, Ala.
TV: ESPN Classic
Series: Grambling leads 35-21-1
Coaches: Grambling, Rod Broadway (8-3, first year; 41-14 overall); Jackson State, Rick Comegy, 13-9, second year; 120-61 overall).
So much has changed in the last month for Grambling State.
Once on a roll, it has played just twice since Nov. 3 — and lost both. In the meantime, a series of suitors have courted its first-year coach Rod Broadway.
With so much uncertainty surrounding the program, this game couldn't get here quickly enough.
But can Grambling's offensive juggernaut, which put up eight touchdowns in a homecoming blowout over Texas Southern, grind back into gear? GSU has scored just six touchdowns since — and just only three touchdowns since beating Alabama State in early November.
That coincides with Grambling's two-game skid against ULM and then Southern to end the regular season, a shocking downturn that nearly obscures the seven wins in a row that came before.
"We just played some teams that were better than us," Broadway said. "We had a chance, but Monroe was better than us this year — and we just didn't play well against Southern. In all three areas, there was a letdown. Things that hadn't happened throughout the course of the year, all of sudden have been happening. Most of them are correctable."
One of GSU's victories came by a 10-point margin against Jackson State on Oct. 20.
KEY TO VICTORY: Forget about October's win
The score in Grambling's 30-20 regular-season victory against Jackson State doesn't reflect how close it actually was.
The game, in fact, locked into a tie three times through the first half before Grambling finally pulled away. GSU then held possession for almost the entire fourth quarter to keep the ball, and the win, away.
Several key penalties, including flags that helped Grambling convert on two fourth downs and another that allowed GSU to rekick a missed field goal, also gave Jackson's opponent new life time and again.
"We've looked at areas we think we can attack," Broadway said. "If they are the same areas as before, then we will do that. But we'll change some things. We learned a lot from playing that game. We'll have a plan that will help us win the ballgame."
TOP MATCHUP: Jackson's defense vs. QB Brandon Landers
JSU's defense, led by Marcellus Speaks (77 tackles, including 11.5 for a loss) and Marcus Jamison (63 tackles), has seen the blueprint from Grambling's trio of season-ending games.
Successive teams have hassled junior Grambling quarterback Brandon Landers, leading to some of his worst performances on the year. Result: GSU finished the year 1-2.
Look for Jackson to employ a similar attack, with far more blitzing than it did back in October.
Smart playcalling and quick decision making will be critical. Grambling will need to establish the run to slow JSU's dashing defenders some, and Landers — second in the SWAC with 2,380 yards and 21 touchdowns — will have to make the short passes and smart checkdowns, too.
GET IN THE GAME
Grambling held Jackson State to just 25 yards on the ground earlier this year, but could be looking at new-look rushing attack on Saturday.
Jackson State's Eric Haw, who leads the team with 630 yards and seven touchdowns on 145 attempts, isn't expected to start after undergoing knee surgery. Lavarius Giles got the majority of JSU's carries in its regular-season finale against Alcorn, and finished with 146 yards and two touchdowns on 21 attempts.
For Jackson State, this is a chance to reclaim its spot atop the conference after a long decade in the wilderness. JSU has won 15 SWAC titles, including consecutive crowns in 1995-96, but has struggled through some decidedly lean years until the arrival of second-year coach Rick Comegy.
Meanwhile, Grambling is in the SWAC Championship Game for the fifth time since its inception in 1999, and is playing for its 22 nd league crown. The question is whether GSU will still have its coach next week, after Florida A&M made a job offer to Broadway — and set a tentative announcement date for a new coach for this Monday.
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DISARMED: Jackson State passes Grambling State to end SWAC run
December 16, 2007
By Nick Deriso
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Grambling State is no longer undefeated in Southwestern Athletic Conference Championship Games.
Jackson State finished that streak with a 42-31 win over GSU on Saturday in a contest that came down to quarterback play.
Grambling, now 4-1 in title matches, finishes coach Rod Broadway's initial season at 8-4. Jackson State, in the second season under Rick Comegy, improved to an identical record.
"There's disappointment in how it ended, but 8-4 is not bad," Broadway said. "It gives us something to build on."
Everything that junior Grambling quarterback Brandon Landers tried to do, JSU's Jimmy Oliver did better.
Landers finished 18-of-38 for 229 yards and two touchdowns. But his occasional problems with ball placement, and a couple of critical drops, left an opening for an emotionally charged JSU team with a partisan crowd on its side.
In all, he suffered three picks.
"They made some plays on the ball, and there were some bad throws," said Landers, a Carroll High product. "We needed to execute better."
There were four lead changes in a game, and amazing streaks of offensive firepower. Grambling scored three times in the third period alone, but three of the four quarters saw Jackson put up two touchdowns.
"At one point, we scored 19 unanswered points," Broadway said, "but the story of the day was missed tackles."
Twice Oliver seemed to have been stopped, and instead made game-changing plays.
In the end, he earned most-valuable player honors by passing eight fewer times than Landers but completing almost as many passes for 30 more yards, one more touchdown and two fewer interceptions.
"He made the difference in the ball game," Broadway said. "He played like a champion today."
It made for one of the most thrilling of the SWAC's nine title matches.
An interception by Sterlington native DeMichael Dizer on the third play of the game set up Grambling's first touchdown, a one-yard blast by freshman running back Frank Warren.
Unfazed, Jackson State relied on a dizzying array of creative flourishes by Oliver — who at one point turned a broken running play into a 11-yard first-down scramble — to answer with its own score on a 14-yard touchdown reception by Cedric Dixon.
"He's a hell of player," said senior Grambling receiver Clyde Edwards, who led all receivers with seven catches for 72 yards. "He kept making something out of nothing."
Landers was then picked off by JSU defensive back Domonique Johnson, who raced back 31 yards for a touchdown — just the 19th non-offensive score in the league all season.
It was Landers' seventh interception over the last four games, as defenses have had surprising success in hounding him on passing downs. Landers was sacked four times in the game.
A stunning series of penalties resulted in Grambling's next points.
First, a personal-foul flag stalled GSU's following possession, but senior punter Tim Manuel punted the ball to the Grambling half-yard line.
A delay of game penalty moved Jackson back further still. Then, as Oliver attempted a pass from the end zone, JSU was called for holding — resulting in a safety.
A streaking 30-yard catch by Reginald Jackson set up Grambling senior kicker Tim Manuel's 37-yard field goal, narrowing the Jackson lead to 14-12 early in the second quarter.
JSU then quickly gave the ball back, when Grambling's Jeffrey Jack smacked tight end Marcel Frost — freeing the ball to be recovered by Nigel Copeland at the Jackson 24.
But when Grambling failed to score on the next possession, a long ebb followed.
Jackson scored 14 quick points after defensive back Keith Camp blocked a Manuel kick.
The first touchdown was keyed on a couple of dramatic plays by Oliver.
He hit Carlos Simpson on a 34-yard reception to the Grambling 19 — then, after a mad scramble from the top to the bottom of the field, found an uncovered Christopher Johnson in the corner of the end zone for a TD.
Landers followed with a line-drive interception to Jackson defender Marcellus Speaks, handing the ball right back at the Grambling 26.
GSU actually held to fourth down, but then jumped offsides to give Jackson a new set of downs. Lavarus Giles' subsequent three-yard touchdown extended JSU's advantage to 28-12.
In the second half's final possession, GSU was forced to punt again.
The time in the locker room did Grambling good.
GSU opened the third quarter by holding Jackson to a quick three-and-out, then freshman running back Cornelius Walker dashed for 37 yards to the Jackson 30. Landers followed with a 30-yard touchdown strike to Nick Lewis.
Even his errant two-point conversion pass, thrown to the wrong shoulder, was hauled in by tight end Tim Abney — who exploded for 10 quick points to tie the game.
The Neville product caught in a 44-yard touchdown pass after a JSU fumble, and added a second two-point conversion.
Manuel's 26-yard field goal then gave Grambling its first lead since the first quarter.
But Oliver continued to amaze, playing his best when things seemed the most dire.
Standing in the clutches of Grambling's Brandon Logan, Oliver connected with Terrance Jones on a 15-yard touchdown pass to retake the lead 35-31.
"He just made some great plays," Comegy said. "Everybody knew he was sacked. But that's the way he plays."
Giles joined in the act, somehow squirting through a group of Grambling defenders for his own thrilling 57-yard touchdown. He finished with a game-high 132 yards on 23 carries, a game after taking over for the injured Eric Haw.
Just then, a sunny afternoon suddenly turned dark and foreboding — and the skies opened up. Neither team could find a rhythm in the swirling rains, and most of the once-raucous crowd made its way to the exits.
The score remained at 42-31 from there on.
"We're just not good enough this year to win it," said Broadway, whose team finished on a three-game skid after winning seven straight. "We stopped progressing somewhere a long the way."
SWAC CHAMPIONSHIP RECAP
Sterlington native DeMichael Dizer, on the third play of the game, intercepted Jackson State quarterback Jimmy Oliver and returned the ball to the GSU 40. Grambling's first score of the game followed on a 1-yard run by freshman Frank Warren.
Grambling quarterback Brandon Landers, passing on second down at his own 31 in the second quarter, was picked off in the flat by Jackson State's defensive back Domonique Johnson — who raced into the end zone to give JSU a lead that it didn't relinquish until less than two minutes remained in the third period.
Grambling defenders Keefe Hall and Donald "Duck" Williams smacked Oliver around on a key third down play, just moments after GSU tied the game at 28 early in the second half. Oliver eventually fumbled, though recovered his own ball. Jackson's opportunity to quickly retake the momentum was over.
DID YOU NOTICE?
Senior Larry Kerlegan, switching from backup quarterback to receiver, pulled in a tough third-down conversion along the sideline for Grambling late in the first period. That was his second catch of the year.
Grambling senior Tim Manuel, in position to give Grambling its first lead since early in the first quarter, had a kick blocked for the second week in a row. Jackson State defensive back Keith Camp slipped in on a field goal attempt midway through the second period. Manuel also had an extra-point try stopped against Southern in the Bayou Classic.
GET IN THE GAME
Replay might have corrected a disappointing miscall by the officials on an Oliver pass during Jackson State's second possession of the third period. The receiver bobbled and then dropped the forward pass, but it was ruled a fumble. Two plays later, Grambling tied the game on a touchdown and two-point conversion by GSU tight end Tim Abney.
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Abney was fabulous in Grambling finale
December 17, 2007
By Nick Deriso
Tim Abney, despite an up-and-down career marked by injury, ended his Grambling State career with a flourish.
He had a hand in 10 of 19 third-quarter points that helped GSU retake the lead late in Saturday's Southwestern Athletic Conference Championship Game.
"I tried to do my best to put us in position to win a championship," Abney said.
The Neville High product collected a two-point conversion after Grambling quarterback Brandon Landers' touchdown pass to Nick Lewis at the 9:46 mark, then caught his own TD grab in a one-play, 44-yard scoring drive. Finally, Abney added a second straight two-point conversion to complete the scoring jag.
Just 32 seconds of game time had passed.
"They called my number and I went out there and played like it was my last game," Abney said. "I wanted to go out with a bang."
Those points tied the game at 28 and were followed by a 26-yard Tim Manuel field goal to give Grambling a slim advantage. Jackson State subsequently answered with two more touchdowns, however, to regain control of the contest.
Abney would finish third on the team for all-purpose yards, a more appropriate end for a player that struggled valiantly through a lingering groin problem.
Abney led all receivers in yards per catch as a Grambling freshman in 2003, but went down and missed the next season then part of 2005. Since then, he received a medical waiver to play an additional year while attending graduate school at GSU.
But he was forced to work primarily as a tight end and possession receiver, since the injury robbed him of critical speed.
They showed love: National media members covering the SWAC Championship Game included Dave Coulson, executive director of Football Championship Subdivision coverage for the Sports Network, and Ralph Wallace of CollegeSportingNews.com
Both had attended the NCAA Division I Football Championship Game between Appalachian State and Delaware the night before in Chattanooga, Tenn. Appalachian State won its third consecutive lower-classification title.
Part of game week festivities was the Sports Network's 21st annual FCS awards banquet, which includes major awards players and coach of the year named after key figures from both SWAC title match participants.
Defensive players receive the Buck Buchanan Award, after the Grambling standout. The offensive award is named for Walter Payton, a Jackson State product.
Finally, the network's coach of the year award is named for Eddie Robinson, who graced the cover of the banquet program.
Coulson composed a tribute inside to Robinson, as did writers Tony Moss and Mickey Charles.
"In my 30 years of covering college football," Coulson said, "I've never heard anyone utter a disparaging word about a man they simply call 'Coach Rob.'"
Walter Dean, the standout Grambling rusher from the early 1990s, was guest speaker. Dean remains the only SWAC player to win the Payton Award.
The same, but different: Grambling and Jackson State ended the season with identical records, but got there in far different ways.
Where GSU dropped three games to end its 8-4 campaign, Jackson began with two losses, both to non-conference foes.
First came a stumble against Mississippi Division II power Delta State on Sept. 1, 27-15, then a far more sobering loss against regional rival Tennessee State, 16-13 on Sept. 8.
Jackson coach Rick Comegy said the team used the early diversity as a springboard.
"We all cried on the way back from that game," Comegy said. "We were coming together. From that time on, they started playing for the blue and white."
JSU won seven of its next nine to advance to the 2007 league title game, falling against Prairie View on Nov. 10 and Grambling on Oct. 10 — a loss avenged by Saturday's 42-31 victory at Legion Field.
Tiger pause: Grambling seniors Jason Banks and Clyde Edwards were team captains for the championship game. ... The title was Jackson's 16th in the SWAC, but first since 1996. That 11-year span was JSU's longest drought since going nine years without a title between 1963-72. ... Former Grambling quarterback and coach Doug Williams was recognized with other attending legacy SWAC alums at midfield before the game. Among them was Williams' former Tampa Bay teammate Jimmy Giles, who attended Alcorn State.
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BACKFIELD IN MOTION: Warren's production sparked Grambling's run in 2007
December 26, 2007
By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING — Grambling State's dramatic turnaround in 2007 was keyed by the most surprising of things: A freshman running back.
Known over the balance of the last decade for its bluntly unbalanced, pass-oriented approach, GSU was instead powered this season by Frank Warren's 852 yards on the ground.
The Alabama native helped lift a newly resurgent rushing offense five spots to No. 4 overall for yardage in the Southwestern Athletic Conference. Warren finished as the league's No. 3 overall running back.
"The coaches were great for me, helping me make the transition from high school to college," Warren said. "The seniors helped me out, too. I give everybody credit for helping me get here."
A GSU team that lost eight games in 2006 won that many times a season later, with Warren as the offense's center point.
"He was definitely a key," first-year Grambling coach Rod Broadway said. "He was one of our best players this year."
The change for this offense was as complete as it was surprising: Warren's total yardage in this season alone is just shy of the combined output from Grambling's top rushers in 1998-2000.
Warren was just 150 yards away from becoming the first to reach 1,000 since 2001, only the second in 14 seasons, and only the 10th since 1958 at Grambling.
A year after GSU passed 30 more times than it rushed, Warren and Co. flipped that script — running 50 more times than junior Brandon Landers threw it.
That was part of a larger strategy by new coordinator James Spady to slow the pace, something that might have helped in a series of 2006 losses when GSU's defense seemed to fade.
"People are so concerned with getting it now; it's a microwave society," said Spady, who also coaches the offensive line. "Then you get in the kind of battles this offense was in last year, and you're running three plays then scoring a touchdown — and your defense is sent right back out there. That is not my personal philosophy."
The new scheme gave Warren a platform, and he emerged as a star. The SWAC recognized him multiple times as newcomer of the week — then gave Warren freshman of the year honors.
"We understood that we were inexperienced at spots, but we expected a lot out of them anyway," Broadway said. "It didn't matter if they were freshmen, if they were good."
Warren was, and from the beginning.
In his collegiate debut, Warren rushed for 143 yards at Alcorn State.
"Starting my first game, that was big moment for me," Warren said. "I had my eyes opened. It was not like the games I had played most of my life."
He's being modest: Warren was a finalist for the Class 5A Back of the Year award as a prep standout at Pleasant Grove, Ala.
He then added 104 yards for GSU against Mississippi Valley, and scored his first two career touchdowns against Arkansas-Pine Bluff.
Walker played a critical role in Grambling's win at the State Fair Classic game, where he rushed for 109 yards against Prairie View — a performance highlighted by a key stretch over GSU's final drive when he gained 43 yards on six attempts to set up the game-winning field goal.
Warren's season high of 149 yards came in Grambling's final home game of the 2007 campaign, a blowout over Texas Southern.
That was the prototype for the way this offense is meant to run: "The running game took the wind out of them early," said departing senior receiver Clyde Edwards.
Warren then scored 14 of GSU's 21 points against Alabama State, once by air and one on the ground, in a win that clinched the Western Division crown.
From there, however, the Grambling running attack faded — and, perhaps not coincidentally, so did the team.
GSU entered a non-conference contest against ULM rushing for 153 yards per game, No. 2 in the SWAC, but was held to negative production on the night. The Tigers would manage just 151 total rushing over their final three games.
All were losses, including upsets at the Bayou Classic against Southern and then the SWAC Championship Game versus Jackson State.
Warren was steadfast through the adversity, framing the good times and the bad as a learning experience.
"It built character," he said.
Warren's production and effort over the balance of the season couldn't be denied, even if the team slumped at season's end. He almost single-handedly helped change the complexion of the Grambling offense.
GSU ran 409 times in 2007, most in three seasons and almost 76 more attempts than last year. Even through that trio of stumbles, Grambling finished '07 with an average of 134 yards per game on the year — also the most since '04 and 40 more per game than a season ago.
"Frank stepped forward and carried the load for us this year," Broadway said. "He has a chance of becoming a great player."
With three years still to play, Warren could easily pass Walter Dean for second all-time in rushing at Grambling — and might even challenge the school record of 3,795, set by Eric Gant in the early 1990s.
GSU's last 1,000-yard rusher was Brad Hill, who had 1,023 yards for former coach Doug Williams six years ago. Before that, Gant's 1,243-yard campaign under Grambling legend Eddie Robinson dates all the way back in 1993.
2007 GSU SEASON RECAP
Final record: 8-4 overall; 8-1 in Southwestern Athletic Conference
Best game: On Oct. 27 against Texas Southern, Grambling did what you are supposed to do in a homecoming game: Beat your opponent like a drum. GSU set season-high marks for rushing and passing touchdowns, and yards rushing.
Worst game: Some thought Grambling had a shot at knocking off upper-classification ULM on Nov. 10. Instead, GSU was held to negative yards rushing, while surrendering a season-high number of interceptions and sacks. The eventual 28-14 loss at ULM was part of a three-game slide to end the year.
Turning point: That skid actually started against Alabama State on Nov. 3. Grambling was held scoreless after the 8:03 mark in the second quarter, and the offense never really got in sync again.
Most telling stat: Grambling's offense averaged 31 points a game before Nov. 3, then 20 points in the four games that followed. GSU went 1-3 over that stretch.
Most valuable player: Freshman running back Frank Warren averaged a first down on every two attempts. He had nearly 1,000 yards from scrimmage, with five rushing touchdowns and one receiving score.
Top offensive players: Reginald Jackson led all receivers in yards and catches, while fellow senior Clyde Edwards was tops in scoring. Edwards also set school marks for career yards, catches and touchdowns.
Top defensive players: Defensive backs Zaire Wilborn and Jeffrey Jack led all tacklers, with 67 stops each. Senior tackle Jason Banks became an important voice in the locker room.
Top special teams player: Senior kicker Tim Manuel was 13-of-19 on field goal attempts and 29-of-34 on extra-point tries to lead all Grambling players with 68 total points. He also averaged 40 yards a punt.
Unsung heroes: Tim Abney, whose career was hampered by injury, provided both senior leadership and an important check down option in a new offense that values short passes.
Emerging star: Junior Keefe Hall grew into his role at middle linebacker, finishing second on the team with 62 tackles. Nobody recovered more fumbles.
Key injury: We never got to see what converted quarterback Larry Kerlegan could really accomplish in the slot, as he sat for extended stretches with a nagging ankle injury.
Returning starters, offense (7): QB Brandon Landers, RB Frank Warren, LT Everett Edwards, LG Revay Smith, RG Muhammad Karim, FB Dante Cheek and WR Kovarus Hills.
Returning starters, defense (6): DT Melvin Matthews, DE Christian Anthony, LB John Carter, DB Kenneth Anio, DB Jeffrey Jack and DB Nigel Copeland.
Returning specialists (1): LS Carlton Johnson.
Notes: With Clyde Edwards, Reginald Jackson and Tim Abney all departing, a new face will have to quickly emerge to stabilize the receiving corps. ... Other signing day priorities: Offensive linemen and a kicker. ... Other emerging stars: RB Cornelius Walker, DE Christian Anthony, QB Tonie Spears, DB Nigel Copeland.
-- Nick Deriso, firstname.lastname@example.org