MEMPHIS, Tenn. – A sea of fans filed into Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium for a clash of NFL stars at the Southern Heritage Classic.
Deion Sanders versus Eddie George: The Hall of Fame defensive back turned Jackson State coach and legendary running back turned Tennessee State coach would meet for the first time in one of the most iconic games in HBCU football.
This year’s battle of Tigers—one that HBCU fans anticipated since Tennessee State hired George as coach earlier this year—brought out the barbecue pits, the back-and-forth battle between Tennessee State's Aristocrat of Bands and Jackson State's Sonic Boom of the South and two historic programs looking to change the narrative around HBCU football.
As the notes of the Sonic Boom of the South’s “We Came to Play” echoed through the stadium and to the tailgate parties surrounding the stadium, the Tigers of Jackson State were prepared to make a statement on the field in a classic that had not been played in 728 days.
The coronavirus pandemic canceled the game in 2020 game. After missing last year, Fred Jones, the founder of the event, wanted to attract national attention for this year's edition. On Saturday, a dominant 38-16 Jackson State victory against Tennessee State in front of 46,171 fans and countless others outside the stadium, Jones has to be excited.
So does Sanders. His Tigers hung 38 points on the scoreboard and produced 404 yards of offense. On defense, Florida transfer James Houston recorded 4.5 sacks against Tennessee State quarterbacks.
“I feel like we fought hard but this game is made up of four quarters,” George said. “We came into halftime down 10-7 and had the ball coming out and then that’s when things went awry."
Tennessee State (0-2) dealt with critical errors on special teams and missed assignments on defense. The Tigers allowed a blocked punt and a punt return for a touchdown. The latter was arguably the score that broke open the game and secured JSU’s victory.
A 37-yard field goal pulled Tennessee State with 14 points to start the fourth quarter, but later in the quarter, Jackson State's Warren Newman weaved around and through TSU’s special teams for an 81-yard punt return touchdown to put his team up 31-10.
“That was the turning point of the game,” Sanders said. "He has pro potential athletically… but if not, I’m trying my best to find him a six-figure job with a Fortune 500 company just by what he brings to work daily.”
Newman, who played in JSU’s last victory against Tennessee State in 2019, said he was eager to get a punt return this week, especially with the national spotlight surrounding the program.
“Last week I came close but I was like this week, we are going to get one,” Newman said.
Jackson State quarterback Shedeur Sanders went 30-of-40 for 362 yards and two touchdowns in the game.
While Jackson State earned its second win in the second season for coach Sanders, the Tigers finished the game 4-of-10 on third downs, Sanders disliked the way the Tigers ended the game, giving up a late touchdown and losing focus.
“That don’t make sense, that can translate into scores,” Sanders said about his team’s inefficiency on third down. “We got to do a better job.
“We ended like hot garbage; we didn’t put the exclamation mark at the end of the sentence… I’m happy with the win but I am critical as a as a coach because I'm striving for perfection, and I want these guys to reach the pinnacle of their dreams with ambition.”
While victories are won on the field, there are also aspects of coaching prominent HBCU programs both coaches are working on away from the field.
“Coaches at HBCUs don’t just wear the hat of a coach,” Sanders previously told Sports Illustrated. “We wear several hats like a Tyler Perry production… When you’re dealing with a team that 98 or 99 percent African American, you’re dealing with some real issues. Trust me, playing on the field is the entrance to the conversation but it goes well beyond that.”
George echoed similar statements when he appeared on ESPN’s College GameDay in Atlanta earlier this season.
“I’m a fireman—constantly putting out fire,” George said. “All these protocols, everything that goes into the business side, I try to provide structure but also flexibility, discipline but also love. When I go on the football field and coach, that’s a getaway."
As the two coaches continue their journey of building their programs on the gridiron, they will endure issues along the way from an X’s and O’s standpoint. However, preparing their players starts with providing the exposure of playing on national television and in games like the SHC.
For now, though, Sanders—who ended his press conference asking members of the media where he could find some soul food in Memphis—can enjoy his second victory before his Tigers (2-0) prepare for another battle next week against Louisiana Monroe.
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