Years from now when the 33rd Southern Heritage Classic is looked at in retrospect, the 16-3 final score – Jackson State over Tennessee State – will tell so little of the story.
It won’t reveal whether the 2022 matchup was the last in the Memphis-based “Classic.” That will be worked out in the days ahead, perhaps in court given JSU’s expressed interest in pulling out.
With TSU second-year head coach Eddie George in mind, the final score will only hint at what George acknowledged: “Our boys fought hard.”
The 13-point margin – way short of the domination that Sanders sought – will be no more than a point of reference for his post-game observation of this year’s Classic confrontation: “We had a wonderful experience, although we did not play our best football.”
Played out at Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium, the game mostly was a defensive struggle despite a high-powered JSU (2-0) offense that scored 52 points on the way to five touchdowns and 500 yards passing the week before.
“We are thankful we got out of here with a W,” said Sanders. “They are not the same team we played last year. Coach George has done a phenomenal job with his team.”
Under Sanders, JSU’s Tigers “have an expectation. People come to the game and expect us to be dominant. Opposing teams expect us to be dominant. We have to fulfill those obligations. To our teammates and ourselves, we didn’t. …
“They had to score two touchdowns to beat us, and we are upset right now. That is the level that we are. We are going to work and get it together.”
It was the second lowest-scoring game in SHC history. On August 31, 1991, TSU defeated Mississippi Valley State 10-7.
“I told the team we did not lose, we ran out of time,” said George. “If you don’t know how to lose, you will never learn how to win. They (JSU) are the hottest team. We were one play, one drive away from possibly going up one point most of the game. We never got discouraged. We didn’t give up.”
JSU’s defense held former University of Memphis running back Devon Starling to 70 rushing yards. The defensive-minded Tigers also sacked former Memphis Kirby High School quarterback Draylen Ellis eight times. Ellis had 138 passing yards.
“We had two very big games. Two tough losses,” said Ellis, accounting for TSU’s 36-29 setback against Eastern Washington to open the season. “We have to go back and correct what we did wrong. We have to finish games. We fight hard from the first quarter through the fourth quarter. These two losses are going to help us.”
A Memphis product on the JSU roster was linebacker and former Whitehaven player Aubrey Miller.
“He is the vital part of the team, especially the defense,” said Sanders. “He is tough and physical. He plays with an attitude and a chip on his shoulder. He practices the same way. He is a pro. I feel like he is a professional football player.”
Sanders – like George – starred in the NFL. His son, JSU quarterback Shedeur Sanders, was a pre-season All-American selection.
“We have to execute better. It starts up front,” said Shedeur Sanders. “We have to be more physical. We have to make plays. We will watch the film and see what we did wrong.”
Sanders found Willie Gaines with 2:20 left for the only touchdown in the game. Sanders finished with 276 passing yards. Sy’veon Wilkerson led the way on the ground with 85 rushing yards.
Next week, the No. 12-ranked Jackson State will play its first home game of the season when they host Grambling State (1-1).
Tennessee State (0-2) will also be at home for their first home game and host Middle Tennessee State University (1-1) from nearby Murfreesboro.