Forget what happened the first time around: During their Sept. 24th game at Eddie Robinson Stadium, both teams combined for 11 turnovers and 16 infractions in Alabama A&M’s 20-14 over Grambling State. At the time the Bulldogs and the Tigers were in the process of finding themselves after slow starts.
“There was a lot of smacking going on that day,” said Alabama A&M head coach Anthony Jones. “There were a lot of mistakes, they were honest mistakes because we were going up against a good team.”
The Bulldogs would go onto to win seven of the next eight to win the SWAC Eastern Division after starting the season 1-2.
For the Tigers, they would drop the next two to fall to 1-4 before rattling off six straight wins to surpass three teams stationed ahead of them in the parity-riddled SWAC Western Division.
“Everyone was trying to find each other, to feel each other out,” said Grambling head coach Doug Williams about his team’s attempt to dig out of their early season malaise. “It was a learning experience for everyone.”
Besides, Grambling running back Dawrence Roberts, who has rushed for 1,039 yards and eight touchdowns in nine games, wasn’t a full-time starter at the time. The Tigers were struggling defensively, and freshman quarterback D.J. Williams hadn’t matured.
It would also figure that Grambling would need to prepare for the possibility of two quarterbacks being used in the championship game. Jones said David Isabelle, who came off the bench in relief to help the Bulldogs rally past Prairie View to secure a birth in Birmingham Saturday, shared snaps in practice this week with the incumbent Deaunte Mason.
“If I had to go out there and play, I’m 100 percent confident in myself and my team that we’d get it done,” Isabelle said.
Rarely does the rematch play out the same way as the initial contest, especially when both squads have had a few weeks off since their last game as is the case with Grambling State and Alabama A&M.
How effective can Mason be?: Bulldogs quarterback Deaunte Mason has plans on playing the SWAC Championship Game after tearing the MCL in his left knee during the season finale last month.
Since the injury Mason has been able to practice and complete some football-related tasks leading up to the game, according to Jones.
“We’ll keep our fingers crossed and keep praying that Deaunte and David will be ready to go,” Jones said. “We’ve got a game plan for both of them. We believe we can be effective with both of them.”
Mason has thrown for 1,814 yards, 10 touchdowns and six interceptions on the season.
If the junior quarterback has any setbacks or is ineffective, expect Isabelle to quickly inserted into the game.
The running backs could decide the outcome: Arguably the two best rushers in the conference (Dawrence Roberts for Grambling and Kaderius Lacey) could literally be put in a position to carry their team to a championship.
Lacey, who was selected to the all-conference team recently, has recorded five 100-yard rushing games (including 178 against Grambling Week Four) to go along with seven rushing touchdowns this season.
The plan of attack is a no-brainer for Grambling: load up the box with eight defenders to stop the run and force a possibly hobbled Mason or the backup Isabelle to beat them with the pass. It won’t be easy, however, as Lacey has done well averaging 4.1 yards per attempt even when opposing defenses are keying on him.
The same can be said for Roberts, who in nine games has rushed for over 1,000 yards, 5.8 yards per carry on only 180 attempts. That speaks volumes to the Tigers offensive line getting off the ball, which allowed the all-conference rusher to get to the second level of the defense using his elusiveness to gain additional yardage.
With inexperience and uncertainty at the quarterback position for both teams there will a lot of handoffs in this one.
The Pick: Both teams have been hot of late winning a combined 12 of their last 13 to reach the title game. That’s why this game should go right down to wire. Alabama A&M 23, Grambling State 20.