JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - The last time that the Jackson State football team walked off the field of Veterans Memorial Stadium was not exactly one of the more pleasant moments in the program’s history.
In the aftermath of a 23-point loss to Grambling – a game in which JSU got pushed around for over 300 rushing yards – John Hendrick stood in front of the media and vowed that changes would be made. It’s the move that any head coach of a, at the time, 1-5 team would make. The tricky part is actually following through on those emotional words.
Fast-forward nearly a month to the day, and the Tigers were back at The Vet with the same players, same coaches, same fans, but a wildly different result. A 21-12 win over Arkansas-Pine Bluff with the Tigers defense holding the Golden Lions under 100 yards on the ground. All of the sudden, JSU finds itself on its first three-game winning streak since 2013, all alone in second place in the SWAC East standings and with a world of confidence.
Hendrick following through on those words he spoke in October, but don’t think for a second that he’s going to take his gas pedal.
“I’m always going to be that jackass when I have to be and I’m always going to stay on point with our players,” said the fourth-year JSU coach after the win over UAPB. “The point is every day, we have to get better and we ever get satisfied with where we are, then we’re going to stop getting better.”
Good to see that winning doesn’t change people.
Well actually, Hendrick is probably one of the few that hasn’t changed. Again, this Jackson State squad is almost unrecognizable compared to the team that was wearing the red and blue for the first six or so games.
Go back to that game against Grambling where, right before the half, JSU was on the cusp of taking of 10-3 lead into half. A blocked field goal returned for a touchdown all of the sudden sent the Tigers into the break with a deficit. Then what happened next can only be described as a team rolling over. Grambling put up 34 second half points and made it a laugher in the end.
You watch that and then go back to this past weekend where the Tigers twice in the first quarter turned the ball over to give UAPB’s offense a short field to work with. Faced with adversity once again, only this time JSU defense actually thrived, keeping a zero on the scoreboard on both drives, buying enough time for Jalon Jones and offense to give the Tigers a second quarter lead – one that they would never relinquish.
It is that same spark that Hendrick first saw from his squad when it was down 21-7 at Mississippi Valley State, then 22-14 at Prairie View A&M. Both games ending in an overtime victory that not only put a positive mark on their record but, according to Hendrick, taught the Tigers how to fight.
“Those games were the first time that I had been here where we were down by a significant amount of points and we never blinked an eye,” explained Hendrick. “Our kids held in together and they just kept playing.
“As long as we continue that, we’re going to be ok.”
If there was one thing that those comebacks and the ensuing success shows us, it’s that we are seeing a young team grow up before our eyes. This story is one following the lines of one we see all too often in college sports, but that doesn’t make it any less fun and endearing to watch.
Rotating in and out at quarterback, Jones is one of quite few freshman that have gone through a trial-by-fire this year. According to the player participation chart, more than 12 freshmen saw the field on Saturday against the Golden Lions with the majority of players that played being sophomores. That list also not including the handful of junior college transfers who are in their first year in the system.
Those figures should not be an excuse for such a slow start. Both players and coaches admit that it has taken more time than they would have liked to build a healthy chemistry, but better late than never.
And like Hendrick said, he will continue being “a Jackass” to make sure that the Tigers keep this going.