Jackson State hasn’t lost a football game in more than 86 days.
The Tigers rolled through the regular season, going 11-1 en route to a perfect record in SWAC play and winning the program’s first conference championship since 2007.
But on a September night in northern Louisiana, Jackson State played a 60-minute contest and didn’t come out victorious for the first, and for now, the only time in the fall.
Louisiana-Monroe, an FBS team that was riding an 11-game losing streak heading into the Sept. 18 matchup against JSU, won a defensive-minded 12-7 battle on the strength of four Calum Sutherland field goals.
Terry Bowden, the Warhawks’ first-year head coach, was not all that surprised how the game eventually unfolded.
Leading up to the contest Bowden, who coached at the likes of Florida State, Clemson, Auburn, Samford, and even Division II Salem University in Salem, West Virginia during his 38-year career, told local reporters that the Deion Sanders-led Tigers “maybe more talented than us.”
The 2021 recruiting rankings at the time suggested as such, with Jackson State boasting the No. 55 best class in the country ahead of Duke, Kansas State, and Central Florida, according to 247Sports. ULM was ranked No. 99 behind Air Force, Eastern Michigan, and East Carolina.
During the game itself, Jackson State put on full display the impact talent it had amassed on the recruiting trail, limiting the Warhawks to 250 yards of total offense. Freshman quarterback Shedeur Sanders established himself as the best offensive player on the field, throwing for 259 yards and a touchdown.
If not for three JSU turnovers, the outcome might have been different.
‘Best I’ve ever played against’
In the postgame press conference, Bowden — with his white collard shirt disheveled and team-colored tie undone — explained how ULM “made one more play” than Jackson State to escape with the win.
“I’ve played a lot of SWAC schools and I’ve played a lot of HBCUs,” said Bowden. “That’s about the best I’ve ever played against.”
Bowden, in a phone interview with HBCU Sports, was candid in his assessment about just how impressive Jackson State was that night and what South Carolina State would likely need to accomplish to win the Celebration Bowl as a decided underdog.
“It was clear to me that they were easily now at the top level of the FCS and that we would have to play very, very well to beat them,” he said.
The scouting report of Jackson State gushed with praise for Shedeur Sanders, who Bowden said, “gave them a chance every game to beat everybody.”
And the defense led by five All-SWAC selections was highlighted for its speed, tackling, and pass coverage prowess.
Bowden credited the quick transformation of Jackson State to Deion Sanders’ ability to win recruiting wars along with assembling a veteran staff that has decades of college and pro experience.
“I think the fact that coach Sanders went there and the appeal he’s had for the portal transfers, their team would remind me of any Group of Five team out there,” Bowden said. “The infusion of talent they got out of the (transfer) portal was extraordinary for the FCS level of play and the number of players they got. They’ll be a very, very talented football team.”
‘Don’t give up the big play’
So how should Buddy Pough and his Bulldogs approach an opponent that is among the best teams in the country?
“I think the biggest thing you have to do is don’t give up the big play,” said Bowden. “If you’re gonna beat a team like that, don’t give up the big play, and don’t let (wide receivers) people get behind you.”
While Jackson State did not feature a single skill position player on the All-SWAC first team, its offense ranked second in the SWAC in scoring offense, second in passing and seventh in total offense.
“They have guys who can win the game in one play,” he said. “And offensively, you don’t want to turn the ball over. You don’t want to give them more at-bats. Those are the two things South Carolina State has to do from the very beginning.”