JSU coach Tony Hughes gets a hug from junior wide receiver Romello Shumake during the post-game celebration.

Jackson State players embraced one another and bear-hugged their coaches. They laughed. They cried. They waved into the Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium crowd at mamas and daddies, aunts and uncles, grands and girlfriends. They stood at attention, faced the band, and sang the Jackson State alma mater – Jackson Fair – and they sang it loudly.

You could hear Tony Hughes’ voice above most of the others. He sang as if he were the lead in the church choir.

Rick Cleveland

Yes, the JSU Tigers celebrated Saturday afternoon’s 7-3 victory over arch-rival Alcorn State as if they had just won a national championship, not their third victory against eight defeats.

To understand why, you have to understand all the circumstances, including that after losing their first seven games, they won three of the last four.

Want more? The Tigers beat a team that came in with a 7-3 record and will play next week in the SWAC Championship game.

More? Alcorn won three of the last four meetings between the two schools. The Braves swamped the Tigers 35-16 last year at Lorman.

More? Jackson State played without three defensive starters, including their best player, senior Keontre Anderson from Canton. And Jackson State faced an Alcorn offense that rolled up 750 yards in a 59-0 victory over Mississippi Valley State last week.

More?

Take it away Tony Hughes.

“Nobody in the world gave us a chance to win this game except ourselves,” Hughes said. “We believed. We didn’t throw in the towel. We kept working, kept believing. …

“In the state of Mississippi this win is huge,” Hughes said. “It’s in the grocery store, it’s in the mall. It’s JSU-Alcorn at the coffee pot. It’s playing marbles, it’s playing spades, it’s playing backgammon. To beat Alcorn is the greatest accomplishment that we can possibly accomplish. I told the guys that all the other games this season don’t matter. This one is the one that matters.”

Jackson State’s short-handed defense was, in a word, special. Alcorn State drove 86 yards in 13 plays for a field goal on the Braves’ first possession of the game. The field goal was kicked little more than five minutes into the game. For the next 55 minutes of playing time – two hours plus in actual time – Alcorn got nothing, zero, nada, null set. That’s pretty impressive when you realize the banged up Tigers were starting true freshman walk-on cornerback C.J. Holmes, who wasn’t even listed on the roster or depth chart Jackson State provided to media.

Indeed, 46 of JSU’s 75 players on scholarship were freshmen and sophomores.

Said Hughes, “We’re excited about the future even though we’re going to be a young team again next year.”

The difference is JSU now has something to build upon. Yes, they are now 6-16 in two seasons under Hughes. But they will enter 2018 having won three of four and having beaten the best team in their division.

The challenge now is to build an offense that can play with anywhere near the effectiveness of Jackson State’s defense, which has played well enough to win several games this season.

The Tigers were offensively challenged again Saturday. They managed only 250 yards on 55 plays. But they got all they would need on one play.

That came late in the second quarter when sophomore running back Terrell Kennedy raced 69 yards on a draw play for the game’s only touchdown. He broke clear at the line of scrimmage behind blocks from Frank Carter and Duante Fisher and then out-raced the Alcorn secondary.

Said Kennedy, “The guys up front made it easy for me.”

Easy? Perhaps for one play, but nothing much came easy all season for the Jackson State offense that scored a touchdown or fewer in six of 11 games.

That only served to make Saturday’s surprising outcome – and the celebration that followed – all the sweeter.

 

Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 12 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.