Forget about the recent developments surrounding the Grambling State football team. Forget that the Tigers have struggled the last two seasons.
In Monte Coleman’s mind, Grambling State is still Grambling State — a team with a lot of tradition. And beating the Tigers is still a big thing.
“It was big last year going down to Grambling and winning because of the rich history and tradition that hovers around Grambling,” the Arkansas-Pine Bluff coach said, referring to UAPB’s 24-17 nailbiter 364 days ago. “You don’t put in any other factor, like they’ve been struggling in recent years or anything like that. That’s a big win because of their history.
“When you say Grambling, that rings a big bell to a lot of fans.”
While records can be thrown out when the Golden Lions and Tigers kick off at 2:30 p.m. today, the fact of the matter is that these aren’t the Tigers of old — but they’re trying to stay on the good foot in their third game under interim coach Dennis Winston, who spent the past three years as defensive line coach at UAPB.
And Winston’s return to Pine Bluff makes today’s game a big affair — partly.
“Probably 49 percent because he’s coming back,” Coleman said. “But the other 51 percent is saying we’re in a battle for (avoiding) last place.”
It’s also the Golden Lions’ final opportunity to win a game at home this season. They’ve lost three of their previous four games at Golden Lion Stadium by eight points or less.
Since their boycott of a game at Jackson State made national headlines three weeks ago, the Tigers have played their most competitive games of the season under Winston, losing in overtime to Texas Southern and defeating Mississippi Valley State.
The boycott, which was a protest of the firing of head coach Doug Williams and the condition of athletic facilities and equipment, divided the players and administration. But since then, the Grambling community has stood united as more than 20,000 have watched the Tigers in action the past two games at Eddie Robinson Memorial Stadium, including 13,856 last week against Valley. Not more than 7,700 had been there this year before last Saturday.
“I think we as a staff have regrouped and decided that everybody has got be on everybody’s side and represent Grambling State University,” Winston said.
Coleman has noticed in watching film of the Tigers’ past two games that they’ve made big plays. He’s made a point of only watching them in action under Winston, not when they were under Williams or George Ragsdale, who was fired after going 0-5 in the interim.
“He’s a player’s coach,” Coleman said of Winston. “They’re responding under him.”
And responding when they need to the most.
Junior Johnathan Williams took over for injured junior D.J. Williams at quarterback and accounted for seven touchdowns (five passing) in the 47-40 win over Valley. He also racked up 319 total offensive yards.
But it’s still unknown who will get the start behind center today. Winston said earlier this week D.J. Williams, who is Doug’s son, was day-to-day with an injury he would not specify.
Offensively, the Tigers scored the most points in a two-game stretch all season under Winston, but like UAPB, winning the war on defense has been a challenge. The Tigers give up 484.9 total yards per game, including 228.7 on the road. They and UAPB rank ninth and 10th, respectively, among SWAC teams in scoring defense (37.7 and 38.9 points per game).
But nothing is soft about Grambling’s defense.
“It will be a very physical game,” Winston said. “A game a lot of people need to come out and see.”
Coleman doesn’t doubt it.
“I thought all our games were physical,” he said.
Golden Lion Notes • I.C. Murrell
• UAPB’s seniors will play their final home game today. The active seniors include: wide receivers Thomas Winters Johnathan Johnson, Ladarius Eckwood, Dezmond Beverly, Brandon Kensey, Erick Thomas and Dexter Bryant; defensive backs Gyovanni Harvey, Brandon Minor and David Watson; linebackers Xavier Lofton and Jer-ryan Harris; and offensive linemen Keathric Brown and Kenny Eagle. Safety T.Q. Mims and offensive lineman LaFarius Hoskins are injured.
• Today is “Take a Kid to the Game” day at UAPB. Kids 12 and under will be admitted free with a purchasing adult.
• With the off-week last week, Harris fell from first to third among the Football Championship Subdivision’s leading tacklers (12.1 tackles per game), but it’s a tight race. James Madison’s Stephon Robertson (12.3) and North Carolina Central’s Tazmon Foster (12.2) lead the category.
• UAPB ranks third in the SWAC in pass defense, allowing 188.9 passing yards per game. Grambling State averages 193.2 passing ypg, with D.J. Williams (176.2) leading the way.