As Grambling prepares for a trip to the Mississippi state capital to take on SWAC East rival Jackson State, its foe in each of the last two SWAC Championship Games, we take a look back at this sizzling rivalry. Things heated up with then-first year coach Rick Comegy’s very first trip to Robinson Stadium.
OCTOBER 21, 2006: GRAMBLING 36-7
Jackson State (then 5-1 overall, 4-0 in SWAC) had remade itself under first-year coach Rick Comegy while Grambling’s Melvin Spears, a year removed from winning the SWAC, had stumbled to a 2-4 start overall and was 2-2 in league play.
Featuring a canny mix of top transfer talent and the best of what James Bell left behind, JSU wasn’t yet dominating. It narrowly won against Mississippi Valley, Alabama State and just the previous week at Southern. Still, Jackson State arrived in Grambling amidst the best season since its 1999 run to the league championship game. JSU hadn’t beaten Alabama State and Southern in a combined nine straight tries.
And JSU boasted the top-ranked defense — they were giving up only 239.8 total yards a night — a season after finishing ninth in the 10-team Southwestern Athletic Conference. Jackson State had allowed just 13 total touchdowns, compared with Grambling’s 21.
After winning just four league games in each of the past two seasons, Jackson State had already won four — a scorching start not seen since the 1995 campaign.
Persistent rain showers meant Grambling players spent more time watching film that week than they did running sprints, more time studying plays than hitting tackling dummies.
Yet, with all of that going against the team, GSU played its most complete game of the year. Returning for its long-delayed first home appearance, Grambling knocked off a team no other SWAC squad had touched.
Grambling, miffed about some pre-game trash talking, jumped out to a 21-0 lead — and eventually won decisively 36-7. Brandon Landers, though only throwing at a 50-percent rate, had 253 passing yards at the break (including two touchdown passes to Clyde Edwards) as GSU built the early lead.
The afternoon began with JSU players surging toward midfield, as pregame warm-ups got underway, chanting: “We own the SWAC.”
A raucous announced crowd of nearly 19,000, many of them JSU fans, only added spice to this bubbling roux by joining in.
“That little stunt got to us,” Edwards, one of two Grambling receivers with more than 100 yards on the day, told me. “That’s the worst thing they could have done.”
Junior Ab Kuuan wasn’t running well, but Landers filled in the gaps with 50 timely first-half yards, primarily on draws. The Grambling defense, meanwhile, held JSU to a standstill through two periods.
“It was an onslaught,” said Comegy, who came in with one victory over Grambling, having beaten Eddie Robinson’s 1995 squad 16-14 while at Central State. “We knew we would have to fight through their initial excitement being home for the first game. But we just couldn’t recover.”
No Jackson receiver had more than two catches at the half. There was one fumble, and it was lost. No points. Not even a trip to the red zone.
Comegy made some adjustments after the break. He switched quarterbacks, burning a redshirt. He started running the ball.
Even so, Jackson was eventually outgained (by a startling 293 total yards), outperformed (except for the Sonic Boom’s “Get Ready,” of course) and perhaps even out-toughed.
Jackson State’s lone touchdown was on a 55-yard interception return by Marcus Smith in the fourth quarter. The SWAC’s only undefeated club was undefeated no more.
OCTOBER 20, 2007: GRAMBLING, 20-10
Jackson finished 2006 on a 1-4 skid, playing its way out of the SWAC Championship Game in the process.
The stakes almost exactly a year later were higher on both sides. A loss in this game could potentially derail both teams’ hopes for a berth in the title match.
And Grambling and Jackson State matched strength on strength.
Just .1 yard per play separated them in total offense each night.
GSU entered the game under first-year coach Rod Broadway having won four SWAC contests in the row since falling against Big East foe Pittsburgh on Sept. 8. In fact, since halftime against Pitt, GSU had outscored opponents 118-47.
Jackson State, meanwhile, hadn’t lost since topping two consecutive opening out-of-conference games, pushing past four straight league foes. That streak has been sparked by running back Eric Haw, then-No. 3 in the SWAC with 459 yards and a league-leading five rushing scores. Versatile quarterback Jimmy Oliver was No. 5 in the league with 936 passing yards, fourth with seven scores by air and No. 5 in the SWAC for total offense.
Yet Comegy, even standing at first place in the league’s Eastern Division, was cautious with his optimism. After all, he had been in the same spot when he faced Grambling the last season — only to lose.
“We want to do our jobs first,” he said back then, “and worry about where we place later.”
It promised to be one of the hardest fought, most intriguing league contests of the year, and it was. The 30-20 final doesn’t reflect how close this pitched regular-season matchup 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.
Grambling came in having won its last three games at Veterans Memorial Stadium, and hadn’t lost to JSU since 2004 — the debut against Jackson of coach Melvin Spears and of Clyde Edwards, a record-smashing receiver who made a bittersweet farewell in the next meeting between these two teams.
Jackson had, at that point, actually won in the debut of Grambling’s last two coaches, besting Doug Williams 68-35 in 1998. Broadway stopped that trend.
DECEMBER 15, 2007: JACKSON STATE 42-31
Once on a roll, it had played just twice since Nov. 3 — and lost both. In the meantime, a series of suitors courted then-first-year coach Rod Broadway. With so much uncertainty surrounding the program, this game couldn’t get here quickly enough.
But could Grambling’s offensive juggernaut, which put up eight touchdowns in a homecoming blowout over Texas Southern, grind back into gear? GSU had scored just six touchdowns since — and just only three touchdowns since beating Alabama State in early November. That coincided with Grambling’s two-game skid against ULM and then Southern to end the regular season, a shocking downturn that all but obscured the seven wins in a row that came before.
History, if nothing else, was on the side of Grambling, who entered Legion Field undefeated in SWAC Championship Games — having won a trio in 2000-02.
Jackson State finished that streak with a 42-31 win that came down to quarterback play.
Grambling completed Broadway’s initial season at 8-4. Jackson, then 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. “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,” Landers told me that night. “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.”
For Edwards, it was the end of a career like no other receiver in the remarkable history of this passing offense. He will perhaps be remembered as much for a school-record 37 career receiving touchdowns as for carrying a 3.9 grade-point average through graduation the very week at Grambling.
For Jackson State, this was a chance to reclaim its spot atop the conference after a long decade in the wilderness. JSU had won 15 previous SWAC titles, including consecutive crowns in 1995-96, but then struggled through some decidedly lean years until the arrival of Rick Comegy.
SEPT. 20, 2008, GRAMBLING 14-5
The realist, itching for revenge, added: Jackson State won the one that counted — the SWAC Championship Game.
Both teams were off to shockingly slow starts, for reigning divisional champs — they had identical 1-2 records — and both were coming off tough losses. Grambling had misfired on a winnable game at Northwestern State, 31-19, while Jackson had lost to Tennessee State, 41-18.
GSU’s problems, in fact, were many: Uncertainty at the quarterback position, as J.P. Tillman and Greg Dillon battled for the starting role — and a defense still finding its footing. Grambling had surrendered nearly 200 rushing yards in Natchitoches, and could not made a stop in the fourth quarter to secure a victory.
For Grambling’s offense, it was more of the same: The unit was responsible for just one score on the day. This game would be in doubt until very late in the evening.
That’s when GSU’s defenders stiffened.
Jackson, set up with first-and-goal from the GSU 2, was stopped on four consecutive plays. Then, clinging to a 7-5 lead, freshman defensive back Bruna’ Foster finally sealed the win for Grambling with a 34-yard interception return for a touchdown with just 44 seconds remaining.
Jackson was held to 12 net yards on 32 rushing attempts; its longest run went for 11. Kenn Anio had also intercepted Jackson’s Trae Rutland on the games penultimate possession, as Grambling began building toward a best-in-the-nation turnover ratio in 2008.
This one didn’t count in the SWAC standings, but it did count as a redemptive moment for a Grambling team now coming into its own.
“We’ve beaten them two out of the three times we’ve played them,” Broadway said that night. “Unfortunately they won the big one, which was the championship game, but this is a big game for us. It’s a big win for us.”
Grambling wouldn’t lose again in 2008.
DECEMBER 13, 2008: GRAMBLING 41-9
Talk about a zero-sum game: Coaches use the 0-0 equation with numbing consistency in each postseason. The regular season records, they’ll say, mean nothing. The embodiment of that, however, was Grambling’s recent history against Jackson State.
The two teams, at this point, had played each other three times since October of 2007, with GSU winning twice in regular-season action. Of course, the lone loss was the most memorable, as JSU romped to a 42-31 victory in the ’07 edition of the SWAC title match.
The regular season, in fact, meant nothing.
This 2008 rematch set up the same way, with Grambling taking another regular-season victory last October. There were important differences, though.
Whereas both 2007 matchups produced scores in bunches, the 2008 edition of these two squads were as good on defense as they were inconsistent on the other side of the ball.
Grambling only scored one offensive touchdown in its 14-5 regular-season victory Oct. 20 over Jackson, a 46-yard touchdown reception by Nick Lewis. Defensive back Bruna Foster sealed the game with a 34-yard interception return for a score. JSU’s points came on a safety and a field goal, as quarterback Trae Rutland’s 20-of-34 passing day produced 255 yards but also two picks.
Flash back to the 2007 SCG, which ended up as an offensive firefight led by a group of veteran playmakers, with 73 total points scored on what became a rainy December night. JSU put up 416 yards to Grambling’s 326 as Jackson captured its first league title since 1996. GSU had previously won at Jackson, Miss., on Oct. 20, 2007, during an afternoon that included four offensive touchdowns and four field goals.
That was then. Grambling’s defense, the league’s most opportunistic, opened the 2008 title match with yet another turnover. It was a sign of things to come, as GSU forced five of them. Grambling’s offense sputtered and missed. But JSU never got close, as the defense strangled another victim.
Foes, all season, would slowly find themselves on the losing end of things, while GSU closed its fingers around their scoring chances.
It was more gritty than pretty. It didn’t need to be. Grambling won, as it had the week before. And the week before that. They did it eight, nine and then 10 times in a row after this 41-9 victory over JSU.
“You don’t win by looking pretty,” junior Grambling end Christian Anthony, the game’s defensive most valuable player, told me that night. “You win by getting ugly.”
This wasn’t a finesse team, even on offense – where the rangy quarterback Greg Dillon makes out-of-body plays. He led the unit to two quick touchdowns to open the title match. But, just like that, Grambling’s offense went ice cold for a time on this frigid December afternoon – missing an extra point, missing on a few scoring opportunities, missing a field goal to end the second period.
The defense never surrendered an inch: JSU failed to reach the end zone through the first two quarters. When the bands marched out onto the Legion Field’s turf, “13-0” was blinking above their heads on the scoreboard. Ugly. But Grambling’s defense loves wins like this. They’ve embraced ugliness.
That wasn’t their slogan – instead, they repeated “Finish!,” after getting tripped up in the 2007 title match by Jackson – but it should have been.
Dillon passed for a second half touchdown, and ran for another. But his defense matched him point for point to capture the victory. Jackson managed only 53 total yards rushing, 168 yards passing – minus that 66-yard touchdown reception, it was just over the century mark – and its lowest scoring output since, well, Grambling beat JSU 15-5 back on Sept. 20.
That one was ugly, too. But Grambling won.
Sure, this championship was won despite an offense that scarcely resembles the torrid point-scorers of Grambling’s storied past. Yet, the truth is, GSU didn’t need that kind of production. Not with this crew of quarterback-hassling, pass-thieving, run-stuffing scene stealers.
GSU’s offense struggled through a rebuilding year, meaning there were only scattered, embryonic successes on that side of the ball. It’s didn’t matter.
The Grambling Tigers were champions again, through sheer force of defensive will.