GRAMBLING, La. – The celebration began with about 38 seconds left as Jackson State’s players – waving towels and dancing – saluted their fans who made the two-hour drive west on Interstate 20.
They had earned the moment.
Linebacker Keonte Hampton recovered a fumble at the Jackson State 1 with 1:04 to preserve a 33-28 come-from-behind win over Grambling on Saturday afternoon at Eddie G. Robinson Memorial Stadium.
Jackson State ended Grambling’s 16-game home winning streak – the second-longest in FCS – and informed the rest of the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) that this is not the same old Jackson State.
The Tigers had lost eight of their last nine games against Grambling, including five in a row. In those games, Grambling had outscored Jackson State 214-118. Each of its last four wins had been by at least 15 points.
As the game ended, quarterback Jalon Jones sprinted over to first-year coach Deion Sanders, who had been hugging and high-fiving his assistants, and hand-delivered the football.
Rest assured the leather trophy from Sanders’ first SWAC victory will eventually wind up in a prominent spot among the Hall of Fame cornerback’s prized possessions.
So has Jackson State put the rest of the SWAC on notice?
“I don’t know that I would say that,” a jubilant Sanders said after the game, “but they know we’re here. They know we’re present.”
Jackson State, 4-8 last season, entered the season 23-44 since 2014. Now, the Tigers are 2-0.
They beat Grambling (0-1) for the first time since 2012 because they displayed the mental and physical toughness Sanders has preached since he arrived on campus on Dec. 1.
Every T-shirt, sweatshirt, beanie and baseball cap the players and coaches wear is adorned with the words “I BELIEVE.” Before the team can win, Sanders said, the players must believe it first.
He spent much of last week telling his team most of the players didn’t have anything to do with losing streak against Grambling.
The only way to believe they can win is by preparing and practicing to win. That, he said, will position them to win.
Then it’s about players making plays at winning time.
Jackson State, which had lost a 27-14 at halftime lead, took a 33-28 lead early in the fourth quarter on a 20-yard catch-and-run by Warren Newman with 12:35 left.
After a defensive stop, they drove to the Grambling 2. A touchdown would’ve essentially ended the game, but running back Kymani Clarke fumbled into the end zone.
Grambling recovered and moved quickly to the Jackson State 2.
A first-down run produced no gain. On second down, linebacker Aubrey Miller Jr. crashed hard from the right side, forcing a fumble that Hampton recovered.
Miller finished with a game-high 17 tackles, while Hampton added 15 tackles.
“You start to see what guys are made of. You see what’s inside of them,” Sanders said of fighting through the game’s adversity. “They don’t want to disappoint me, but I tell them I believe in you, but you gotta believe you can do it. I’m willing to bet on y’all.”
Jackson State finished with 473 yards, its best offensive output since 2013. Tyson Alexander finished with a career-high 184 yards on 17 carries and a touchdown.
Jones passed for 180 yards and three touchdowns.
The team Jackson State fields in the fall should be considerably better than this squad and that should concern the rest of the SWAC.
After all, the Tigers are going to add the top-rated recruiting class in the FCS led by Sanders’ son, Shedeur, one of the nation’s top high school quarterbacks last year.
Plus, they’re expected to add several quality players in the transfer portal.
“The best is yet to come. That’s why I’m so excited. Y’all know what we got. We just can’t use it right now,” Sanders said. “It’s like seeing all of the ingredients in grandma’s kitchen, but knowing you can’t taste the meal until Thanksgiving.”