Grambling’s goal: Finish strong vs. archrival Southern

Oh how quickly things change in the landscape of college football.

At this point two years ago, Grambling entered the Bayou Classic riding high on a five-game winning streak. The Tigers, in their first year of Doug Williams’ second turn as coach, went on to crush rival Southern 36-12, then took down Alabama A&M 16-15 in the Southwestern Athletic Conference Championship game.

Fast-forward to today, and the program is on its third head coach of the season. Grambling has lost 20 of its past 22 games, and the school found itself at the center of a media frenzy when players, upset at the administration over Williams’ firing and the state of their facilities, boycotted practice and refused play at Jackson State on Oct. 19, leading to a forfeit.

“I think our young men this year got some things accomplished by stepping out of the box and doing some things that you normally don’t do,” interim coach Dennis “Dirt” Winston said. “A lot of people got behind them for that. And I’m proud of them for doing that.”

The Tigers (1-10, 1-7) have an opportunity to rectify what has been a disappointing season at 1:30 p.m. Saturday when they square off against the Jaguars inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Grambling is currently playing its best football of the season. The Tigers were competitive in their past three contests, including a 40-7 win over Mississippi Valley State on Nov. 2.

“People are going to be surprised,” Winston said. “In the last two games (against Valley and Arkansas-Pine Bluff), we scored 89 points. The players have been totally focused on the task at hand.”

Grambling will have had ample time to prepare. Its last game, against UAPB, was Nov. 9.

“We’ve had three weeks to prepare for Southern, but you don’t see the guys just laying around,” Winston said. “You see (the players) totally focused on what they have to get done. The time off hasn’t affected us at all. We are continually practicing, doing the same things that we have done in practice before. Coaches left and went out for a week of recruiting, and now we’re back practicing.

“We’ve done some things where we are just really focusing on assignment, alignment and working techniques.”

When the Tigers take their first offensive snap Saturday, Winston and his coaching staff will have a decision on which junior quarterback to send into the huddle: D.J. Williams or Johnathan Williams.

“They both can do different things, but they both can run,” Winston said. “We usually make a decision on who’s going to start on Friday. Through the week, we’ll give them the same amount of reps in practice. Whichever one performs the best during that week is the one that’s going to start.”

D.J. Williams, son of Doug Williams, had been the team’s starting quarterback for the majority of the season until he suffered an injury leading up to the Valley game.

D.J. Williams has passed for 1,410 yards this season to go with 11 touchdowns but has a completion percentage under 50 percent (45.8) and eight interceptions.

In place of D.J. Williams, Johnathan Williams accounted for seven touchdowns against Valley — five passing and two rushing — to lead Grambling to its first and only victory.

Johnathan Williams proved his performance was no fluke a week later, when he tallied 359 yards and three touchdowns against Pine Bluff.

“Johnathan has played really well,” Winston said. “But he’s no longer going to be a surprise to people. He’s going to have to step his game up and do some things that we know he is capable of doing.”

On the other side of the ball, Winston said he recognizes his defense will have to slow down a potent Southern offense. The Jaguars enter Saturday’s game averaging 273.7 passing yards, good for second-best in the SWAC.

“Southern is the hottest team going,” he said.

Yet the interim coach said his defense will stick to what it does best.

“We’re not going to change anything that we do defensively because of what they do,” Winston said. “If anything, we’re going to dictate to (Southern) what we’re going to do defensively. What they are doing will be nothing new to us.”

And for a season that’s had so much turmoil, Winston said it’s nice that the Tigers can come together for one last time, inside the Superdome against their archrival, as they look to end the season on a high note.

“We’re a family,” Winston said. “And we’re all going to sink together, or we’re going to rise together.”