Every football game yields a fresh reflection of the gulf that divides winning and losing and the 2019 Southern Heritage Classic brought that sports truism into sharp focus.
First-year Jackson State University head coach John Hendricks was a walking example of deep satisfaction as he stepped up to accept the trophy that came with his Tigers holding off the rival Tigers of Tennessee State University in a 49-44 thriller at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium on Saturday evening.
It was a look of satisfaction most appropriate for the scenario – the first time since 2011 that Jackson State had emerged with a win over Tennessee State University in the much-anticipated annual game that caps “The Classic” in Memphis.
“I enjoyed that more that anything in a long time,” said Hendricks, referencing the feeling of hoisting the SHC championship trophy. “It was big for our kids. It was big for our football program. We needed this win.
“Our kids needed the confidence that they could come into a big game and win it. They got it done and I am happy for them.”
Tennessee State head coach Rod Reed put the defeat into this context:
“It is a very disappointing loss. I thought the kids gave effort but didn’t execute defensively. They had their way with us. That is not the defense we play at Tennessee State. We had a couple of guys out, but that is no excuse. If we learn how to play defense, we will be dangerous.”
The success of Jackson State’s running game was of particular concern as Reed looked back at the game played before an announced attendance of 48,347.
“At the end of the day when a team runs the ball on you, that means they were more physical than you. We got out-physicalled today,” said Reed.
Celebrating its 30th year, the Southern Heritage Classic was primed for something special and fans did not have to wait long. Jackson State opened the game with a kickoff return for a 100-yard touchdown by Josh Littles. Not to be out done, Tennessee State did the same on a 96-yard kickoff return by Chris Rowland to tie the game (7-7) in the first 25 seconds.
Littles’ kickoff return for 100 yards tied a Classic record that was set by Avion Black (TSU) in 1999 as both the longest return and longest return for a touchdown. Rowland’s return was the second longest return for a touchdown in Classic history.
The game produced the most points scored in the Classic’s history (103). The previous record was 96 points in the (63-33) Tennessee State win over Jackson State in 2001.
JSU rushed for 223 yards in the first half and three rushing touchdowns by Tyson Alexander (52 yards), Derrick Ponder (23 yards) and Jordan Johnson (4 yards) to take a commanding 28-7 lead.
Tennessee State switched quarterbacks late in the second quarter. Cameron Rosendahl replaced starter Octavious Battle. Battle managed to only throw for 5 yards in the first half. Rosendahl was able to orchestrate a drive late in the quarter to close the JSU lead down (28-14).
Rosendahl did not practice any the week leading up to the game. Nursing an injured right leg with a brace, he was not very mobile but was very effective with his arm.
The second half had both coaches wanting their defensive units to just make a stop. The ground game of Jackson State continued in the second half. DD Bowie had two third quarter touchdown runs. TSU’s DeMarco Corbin rushed in from 14 yards as the third quarter ended and Jackson State held a 42-13 lead.
TSU mounted a furious fourth-quarter charge in pursuit of keeping its winning streak over Jackson State alive. Rosendahl threw two touchdown passes – one to Rowland (56 yards) and the other to Steven Newbold (19 yards) – in the final four minutes of the game.
TSU was unsuccessful in attempting to recover both onside kicks after the touchdowns.
“They did a great job of coming back,” JSU’s Hendricks said, particularly noting the TSU passing game. “Once a team gets into a rhythm of throwing the football it is hard to stop them. We had a heck of a time trying to get them stopped up. The biggest play of the game was us stopping them on that last fourth down of the game.”
Asked if the emotional win could help JSU build momentum for the rest of the season, Hendricks said, “Hopefully we can get on a run here. We have to play every week. The league is excellent. I am going to enjoy the journey and the process of getting this team to be the best they can possibly be.”
* Jordan Johnson of Jackson State was named the Offensive MVP for the Classic.
* Jackson State (1-2) will be on the road again next week as the Tigers travel to Indianapolis for the Circle City Classic.
* Jackson State will finally play a home game on September 28 when JSU hosts the Grambling Tigers in the conference opener.
* Tennessee State (1-2) will return home to host the University of Arkansas Pine Bluff.
GALLERY: (Photos: Warren Roseborough)