The prevailing notion at the SWAC Championship Game Saturday was that Grambling State stole a victory against Alabama A&M at Legion Field.
Even though Alabama A&M (8-4) had 331 total yards to 183 for the G-Men (8-4), who committed three turnovers, Coach Doug Williams said thievery had nothing to do with his team’s 16-15 victory. Williams, now 4-0 in the championship game, said his team claimed the school’s 22nd conference title and sixth since the two-division alignment was instituted in 1999 the old fashioned way.
“I never stole anything in my life,” Williams said. “We earned it.”
The 2011 championship is the most improbable of the 22 conference titles that the G-Men have won. They ended the season with a seven-game winning streak after getting off to a 1-4 start.
“We were wondering what was going on,” All-SWAC linebacker and defensive captain Cliff Exama said. “We kept fighting. This team will never be forgotten. To be 1-4 and win the championship, it will never be forgotten.”
The G-Men emerged with the victory – and avenged a 20-14 regular season home loss to Alabama A&M, which was the Bulldogs’ first win ever at Grambling – thanks to big plays on both sides of the ball.
Freshman quarterback D.J. Williams, the coach’s son, who was 4-for-16 for 100 yards, connected with Mario Louis on an 88-yard touchdown pass midway through the third quarter, and middle linebacker Jacardi Carter returned a fumble 66 yards for a score in the fourth quarter.
“The defense did what it had to do,” Williams said after watching his team put the clamps on Alabama A&M’s offense after the Bulldogs went ahead 15-0 in the second quarter. “It wasn’t a matter of stealing a win. They willed themselves to win.”
Running back Kadeirus Lacey, the big gun in Alabama A&M’s offensive arsenal with a school record 1,143 rushing yards this season to lead the conference, unloaded both barrels on the G-Men in the first half. Lacey carried the ball six times for 39 yards on the Bulldogs’ nine play, 84-yard scoring drive on their opening possession. Lacey, who also had a seven-yard pass reception on the drive, put the ball in the end zone with an 11-yard run that gave Alabama A&M 6-0 lead after Grambling blocked PAT kick.
Lacey ended the quarter with 44 yards on nine carries and appeared to be headed for a repeat of his 178-yard regular season rushing performance against the G-Men.
Alabama A&M increased its lead to 15-0 on quarterback Deaunte Mason’s 36-yard touchdown pass to Terence Pride and Wilson’s 34-yard field goal. Even though the G-Men were losing ground on the scoreboard, they were able to get Lacey under control as they limited him to just eight yards in the second half and 86 for the game.
“The defense settled down after the first drive and played a solid game,” Williams said.
The G-Men’s offense – on life support most of the game – only mustered three first-half points on Zoltan Riazzo’s 27-yard field goal. But their defense kept them within striking distance. D.J. Williams hooked up an 80-yard scoring pass with Mario Louis, a former intramural star who didn’t play high school football and walked on at Grambling, to get Grambling close at 15-9. Williams and Louis misfired on the same route in the first when Louis was double covered. The second time around, Williams added a play-action fake to pull the safety up, leaving Louis in one-on-one coverage.
The G-Men’s defense took over at that point. On Alabama A&M’s first possession of the fourth quarter, the G-Men gang tackled backup running back Bryan Nelson after a one-yard gain. As Nelson fought for more yards, the ball popped out. Carter scooped it up and lumbered 66 yards untouched for the deciding score.
Alabama A&M contended, to no avail, that Nelson’s forward progress had been stopped and the whistle should have blown.
“He was putting forth the extra effort, and the ball came loose,” Alabama A&M coach Anthony Jones said. “I thought he was down. Apparently a lot of other people did too because they stopped.”
Williams saw the play differently.
“Fumble. Great recovery. Touchdown. That’s the way I saw it,” Williams said.
Alabama A&M had one last opportunity to win the game. The Bulldogs got the ball at their 21 with 4:12 remaining in the game. They drove to Grambling’s 46, where they faced a fourth-and-six play. Linebacker Cliff Exama, the G-Men’s defensive captain, snuffed out any hope Alabama A&M had of pulling a victory when he intercepted Mason’s pass at the 27 with 1:21 left.
“I dropped back in the front of the curl, and he threw it,” Exama said. “When the ball is in the air, it’s anybody’s.”
The defeat was a replay of the Bulldogs’ season-opening 20-17 loss to Hampton. They led 17-0 at half, and the kicking game cost them dearly as Hampton blocked All-SWAC kicker Chance Wilson’s 41-yard field goal attempt as time expired.
In the loss to Grambling, Wilson had a PAT blocked, and he missed another.
“The same way we started the season is the same way we ended it,” Jones said. “We played a great half of football, but we couldn’t finish.”
Alabama A&M is 1-5 in six appearances in the championship game. Bulldogs players say they have only themselves to blame for their most recent title game defeat.
“Of course everybody knows we were the better team,” Lacey said. “Grambling is a good team. But we got to finish. We feel we gave the game up.”
DIVISION II PLAYOFFS
Wayne State 21, Winston-Salem State 14: The Rams’ flirtation with a perfect season ended with a home loss in the Division II semifinals after spotting Wayne State a 14-0 lead, which they were unable to overcome.
Wayne State (12-3), the sixth seed in its region, scored on its first possession when quarterback Matt Mohner connected with Josh Renel on a 25-yard touchdown pass. Mohner scored on a one-yard quarterback sneak, capping an 80-yard drive after Winston-Salem (13-1) turned the ball over on downs at Wayne State’s 20.
Winston-Salem cut the lead to 14-7 at the half on a 26-yard touchdown pass from Kameron Smith to Juhuaan Butler. But Wayne State increased its advantage to 21-7 in the third period after recovering a fumble at Winston-Salem’s 1.
Running back Nicolas Cooper, who was held to 96 yards rushing, scored on a one-yard plunge midway through the fourth quarter to narrow Wayne State’s lead to 21-14.
“This team has a lot to be proud of,” Winston-Salem coach Connell Maynor said. “The most wins of any HBCU ever, 13 wins, CIAA Champs, HBCU National Champs, Semifinals of the NCAA Playoffs. We have nothing to hang our heads about. We came up short. When you play great games against great teams, the little things make the difference. We’ll be back. We will reload, and we will be back here next year and we will have the same goal: To win the national championship.”