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Instate rivals Southern and Grambling State combined to produce more than 1,000 yards of offense and the highest point total in the 41-year history of the Bayou Classic Saturday at the Mercedes Benz Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans. But it was defending SWAC champion Southern’s defense that spelled the difference as the Jaguars prevailed 52-45 to win the West Division and earn spot in the conference championship game in front of 57,852 frenzied fans.

Grambling trailed by 21 points three times in the game – the last coming at 45-24 with 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter – before pulling to within a touchdown of the lead. Quarterback Jonathan Williams, who passed for 450 yards and four touchdowns and rushed 20 times for 87 yards, drove G-Men to inside Southern’s one-yard line where Grambling faced first-and-goal with 12 seconds remaining.

Williams had put the G-Men in position to tie the score with a 12-yard scramble. Williams came ever so close to scoring on the play, which was reviewed by officials who determined he didn’t get into the end zone. Southern called timeout with eight seconds showing on the clock after Grambling came to the line of scrimmage. When play resumed, Williams kept the ball on a quarterback sneak, and Southern’s defense stacked him up short of the end zone.

“I thought it was a great call by them,” Southern coach Dawson Odums said. “We set our defense to try and push them back. Gabriel Echols did a great job stuffing the center, and that gave us an opportunity to hold them short.” Grambling had lined up to spike the ball and stop the clock before Southern’s timeout, hoping to be able to run two plays. When play resumed, Williams was back under center but he was stonewalled when he tried to bully his way into the end zone.

“If we get it, it’s a great call. If we don’t then it’s a bad call, but that’s football. That’s part of it,’’ Grambling coach Broderick Fobbs said.

The Jaguars (9-3, 8-1 SWAC) will take on Alcorn State in the SWAC Championship Game at NRG Stadium in Houston this Saturday. Alcorn defeated the Jaguars 56-16 during the regular season despite committing five turnovers. For the past several years only bragging rights were at stake when these rivals met in the game, once the marquee event on the Black college schedule that routinely drew in excess of 65,000 fans.

But post-Hurricane Katrina, the Classic averaged 44,439 the last four years as one or both schools struggled to win games and were non-factors in the SWAC race. Things were different this time around. Grambling, with former G-Men running back and captain at the helm in his first year as coach, rebounded from back-to-back one-win seasons to become relevant again. The Tigers started the season 0-3 before stringing together a seven-game winning streak until a loss to Alabama State Nov. 15, their first conference loss.

For its part, Southern, after winning the 2013 SWAC title started the season slowly but built momentum as the year went on. The Jaguars, 2-3 over all and 1-1 in the SWAC as the calendar turned to October, came into the contest with a six-game winning streak. A spot in the SWAC championship game was in the balance, and Odums compared it to a heavyweight fight. Both sides threw plenty of haymakers. They had six scoring plays of 45 yards or more, including kickoff returns for touchdowns, one by each team.

Williams, the MVP for Grambling, was spectacular in the second half as he tried to rally the G-Men. He threw for 246 yards and three touchdowns in the final two periods. He completed 11 of 24 passes for 161 yards and two touchdowns in the fourth period alone. Williams’ second-half heroics turned what appeared to be a runaway of game in the first half to a nail-biter at the end. Southern dominated play most of the game thanks to its offensive line, which enabled the Jaguars to generated 484 total yards.

The Jaguars, one of the weaker running teams in the SWAC in recent years, rang up 226 yards on the ground. Running back Lenard Tillery, a former walk-on, led the Jaguars with a career-high 183 yards on 27 carries. Tillery’s total gives him 1,156 yards for the season and makes him the Jaguars’ first 1,000-yard rusher since Kenneth Peoples in 2003. Southern’s offensive front also did a superb job protecting freshman quarterback Austin Howard.

The G-Men entered the game with 45 sacks, but they didn’t get to Austin a single time. With plenty of time to pick out his receivers, Howard riddled Grambling’s secondary for 258 yards and three touchdowns and gave the Jaguars’ offense some much-needed balance. Howard began the game with a hot hand, completing six of his first eight passes.

He threw for 175 yards and three touchdowns to give the Jaguars a 31-17 advantage going into the third period. Williams had a 13-yard touchdown pass to Willie Quinn and scoring passes of 45 and 55 yards to Mike Jones. Jones had three catches for 130 yards in the game. Tillery’s 52-yard touchdown run at 13:20 of the third period gave the Jaguars their second 21-point lead of the game, 38-17, and seemed to be the knockout out punch.

But Ka’Jand Domino responded by returning the ensuing kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown to breathe life back into the G-Men. Grambling pulled to within striking distance of the lead at 52-45 when Williams connected with Chester Rogers on a 76-yard touchdown pass midway through the fourth quarter. Chester had 10 catches for 207 yards. Verlon Hunter was Williams’ other primary receiving target with 12 catches for 144 yards. Hunter came into the game with 18 receptions for 431 yards.

Other Key Results:

Richmond 46, Morgan State 24 – A slow start doomed the Bears to defeat in the first FCS playoff appearance in school history. Richmond ((9-4) built a 22-0 lead while scoring on its first four possessions. Morgan State (7-6), one of five teams that tied for the championship of the MEAC, scored 10 straight points in the second period and trailed 29-10 at the half. The Bears amassed 430 yards total offense after they got untracked, but they were undone by three turnovers on interceptions by quarterback Moses Skillon. Running back Herb Walker rushed for 120 yards on 21 carries for Morgan State. The 46 points for Richmond, which tied for third in the Colonial Athletic Association and was one of four teams from that conference to make the playoffs, set a school FCS playoff record. Quarterback Michael Strauss threw for 272 yards and four touchdowns for the Spiers.

Bloomsburg 35, Virginia State 14 – The Trojans’ historic season came to a disappointing end in the second round of the Division II playoffs in Bloomsburg, Pa. The Trojans (10-3), champions of the CIAA, fell behind 7-0 when running back Eddie Mateo scored on a 21-yard run the first time Bloomsburg (11-1) had the ball. Virginia State responded by becoming the first Bloomsburg opponent this season to score on its first possession. Tarian Ayres connected with Jaivon Smallwood on a 50-yard touchdown pass to pull the Trojans even. Virginia State’s offense sputtered from that point. The Trojans were guilty of three turnover and only generated 267 yards. They didn’t score again until Kavon Bellamy capped a 67-yard drive with a one-yard run with 2:41 left in the game.

(Photo: Bayou Classic Flickr)

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