Grambling opens conference play by hosting Texas Southern

Grambling hopes to get its first SWAC win while Texas Southern seeks to end losing streak.

In his fifth season at Texas Southern, head football coach Clarence McKinney has overseen gradual improvement in the victory column. His team went from zero wins in his first two years to a pair in 2021 and five in 2022. 

Though his Tigers have opened this season with three consecutive defeats, McKinney can see progress in their back-to-back blowouts against Football Bowl Series foes. The Tigers scored a mere field goal and lost by 68 points against Toledo. Last week, they scored a touchdown and lost by 52 points against neighboring Rice.

LSU running back Kaleb Jackson (28) carries the ball against Grambling during their Sept. 9, 2023, game at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (Photo credit: © Scott Clause / USA TODAY NETWORK)

“We went across the street and played a really tough opponent for us,” McKinney said Monday during the Southwestern Athletic Conference media call. “It gave us an opportunity to work on some things and come together as a team. Our guys fought from the opening kick to the final whistle versus a quality opponent.”

They’ll hit the road Saturday for a game at Grambling State (1-2, 0-0 in the SWAC), which suffered its own FBS beatdown two weeks ago – 72-10 against LSU – but rebounded with a laugher in its home opener, 58-22 against Florida Memorial. Head coach Hue Jackson said his team can’t afford a letdown against a division rival that’s 0-3, 0-1 in the SWAC.

“We need to take care of business at home and open conference play the right way,” Jackson said during the media call. “Obviously, we have aspirations to win the West, and it starts right here. We’ve got to protect our home and do a great job.”

The task could be easier if Texas Southern is again without preseason All-SWAC quarterback Anthony Body, who missed the last two games with an undisclosed injury after starting the season opener against Prairie View. McKinney has turned to backup QB Jace Wilson, who led two long drives against Rice, one ending in a touchdown and the other reaching Rice’s two-yard line before a failed fourth-down conversion.

“We’re going to do what we do offensively, and we have confidence in both Andrew and Jace,” McKinney said, adding that the starter will be a game-time decision. “Our scheme is our scheme, and we’ve recruited those guys to play in the system.”

Grambling’s starting quarterback is Myles Crawley, who passed for 220 yards and three touchdowns against Florida Memorial. That performance wasn’t as gaudy as the season-opener against Hampton, when Crawley completed 66% of his attempts, going 25-38  for 311 yards and two TDs. Stiffer challenges likely await in the SWAC.

Texas Southern Tigers during the game against Rice Owls at Rice Stadium on Sept. 16, 2023, in Houston. (Photo courtesy of Texas Southern Athletics/Travis Pendergrass)

“He’s got to continue to grow week in and week out,” Jackson said of the transfer from Alabama State. “He’s going to face different defenses as we take this journey during the season. There are some balls I’m sure he’d love to have back this past week, but he’s going to continue to grow and continue to get better.”

The offense can use a boost when it’s on the sideline watching defensive end Sundiata Anderson, the preseason SWAC Defensive Player of the Year. Anderson hasn’t enjoyed a breakout game yet (third on the team in tackles and no sacks), but he’s one of the top HBCU prospects in the next NFL draft. Grambling linebacker Lewis Matthew earned conference Player of the Week honors last week for making 11 tackles and returning an interception for a touchdown. 

Florida Memorial was drubbed on the scoreboard but competitive in other areas, rushing for more yards (233-183), passing for nearly as many yards (212 vs. 220), and winning time of possession by more than 13 minutes. Whether Body or Wilson starts at quarterback, Texas Southern will challenge Grambling’s rushing defense with primary ballcarriers Jacorey Howard and LaDarius Owens.

“We’ve got to make sure we handle the run better,” Jackson said. “Gap control is obviously going to be really important when you play Texas Southern. They have quarterbacks that can run the ball and really good running backs that can run the football.”

Grambling has its sights on the division crown, which seems ready for the taking, and wants to begin SWAC play on the right note. Texas Southern opened at home with an overtime loss against Prairie View and can hardly afford an 0-2 start in the division. McKinney is trying to engineer the school’s first winning season since 2009.

“It’s going to be a tough opponent for us on the road, which we like playing on the road,” he said. “We’re just looking forward to this matchup. I think that the SWAC West is wide open and we’re still. In it. This gives us an opportunity to show if we belong.”

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