NEW ORLEANS — After a coaching change, a winning streak and a losing streak, at the end of the season that began with so much turmoil and ended Saturday with Southern’s best chance to win a Bayou Classic for the first time since 2007, linebacker Franchot West found himself in the middle of the field inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, scrambling with his teammates, barking above the noise, trying to stop Grambling one last time.
West and the Jaguars had taken a big lead, then nearly given all of it away. The archrival Tigers were driving for a potential game-winning score with less than a minute left.
From both sidelines, coaches and players screamed. The crowd of 45,980, though small, scattered and late-arriving, was certainly into it.
Moments before his fumble recovery preserved a thrilling 38-33 win in this matchup of two teams with disappointing records, West learned his responsibility: Spy on Grambling quarterback Frank Rivers, then make a play if the action comes your way.
West watched as defensive lineman Donald Phillips, a freshman from New Orleans, make a sack on Rivers, forcing the ball free. A few Grambling bodies had their chance at it, but the ball squirted away. West pounced. With 24 seconds remaining, he ran off the field with the ball in hand — and the victory, as well.
“No greater feeling. No greater feeling,” the junior said. “It’s a great feeling for us to finish off a season like this, with a win in the Bayou Classic.”
In holding off the archrival Tigers (1-10, 0-9 Southwestern Athletic Conference), the Jaguars (4-7, 3-6) salvaged a game it controlled for much of the final three quarters.
They also gave Dawson Odums a win in his final game as interim coach.
Odums took over when SU ended the Stump Mitchell era after a loss in the second game of the season Sept. 13 against Mississippi Valley State. The Jaguars answered with wins in three of their next four games under Odums, but soon lost their momentum.
They took a four-game slide into the Superdome.
Odums said he’d like to stay at SU on a permanent basis, but understands that the call isn’t his. Instead, it belongs to athletic director William Broussard, who said Odums will be included in a national search for the Jaguars’ next coach.
“Whatever happens, we’ll be ecstatic about it either way,” Odums said, “because we know we put our best foot forward in making young men better.”
They certainly looked better during the second and third quarters of Saturday’s game, albeit against a porous Tigers defense.
After Southern lost two early fumbles that helped Grambling take a quick 14-0 lead, the Jaguars turned to junior quarterback Dray Joseph, who had played as a backup in the previous two Bayou Classics, but made his first start in the big game Saturday.
Joseph made the most of it.
Shaking off a few early drops and misfires, Joseph quickly warmed up.
Joseph threw five touchdown passes, tying a school record in Bayou Classic games (Quincy Richard also threw for five TDs in a 2003 victory).
Joseph completed 22 of 37 passes for 284 yards, with no interceptions. During the second quarter, as Southern’s defense made four consecutive stops, Joseph put on a show, slicing up the Grambling defense for three unanswered scores.
“I’ve said before that I feel like when I get hot, I can’t be stopped,” said Joseph, who finished with 2,511 passing yards, 25 touchdowns and seven interceptions in his first year as a full-time starter.
“It seems like we don’t ever start off well. ... But you can feel it when we get into a rhythm. I really have to thank my linemen for giving me a lot of time to throw.”
SU took a 21-17 lead into halftime — and after the Tigers added another field goal on the opening drive of the third quarter, Joseph quickly and sharply lead his team downfield for another score — this time on a 28-yard throw to senior Charles Hawkins, who had a career-high three scores.
The Jaguars went ahead
38-20 with 9:08 remaining on Matt Hill’s 42-yard field goal.
At the time, they seemingly had the game in hand.
They didn’t bank on Grambling’s late resurgence.
The Tigers pulled to within 12 points with 7:26 left, then added another touchdown when Cedric Skinner plowed into the end zone from 2 yards away with 1:58 remaining.
Grambling got the ball again with 1:23 to go, and the Tigers started moving again.
“When the game’s on the line and a little adversity sets in, you’ve got to stay positive,” Odums said. “you’ve got to lean on the things that got you to that point.”
West, for his part, leaned on his instincts. And his teammates.
For one final time this season, they served Southern well.
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