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'A New King in the SWAC': Deion Sanders, Jackson State Are Ready for More

Even after JSU earned its first SWAC title since 2007 and its first 11-win season ever, Sanders says the journey is not complete.

JACKSON, MISS. — A member on the personnel staff for Jackson State football walked down the Tigers' sideline swinging a blue flag—one that featured the program's iconic J-S-U block—high in the sky. 

Water began to fly everywhere. JSU defensive backs' Isaiah Bolden, De'Jahn "Nugget" Warren and Randall Haynie began posing for multiple pictures. The crowd was roaring and JSU was less than 28 seconds away from its first SWAC title since 2007. 

As the Tigers' offense took its final snaps in the game in front of 50,128 people—the largest crowd ever in a SWAC title game—defensive lineman James Houston was letting the moment sit in.

Houston, who came to JSU as a graduate transfer from Florida in July, had already taken his blue Under Armour jersey off. After a brief celebratory moment with his fellow defensive lineman Coynis Miller, he found a blue Sharpie and asked a fan what was Saturday's date.

"December 4th", the fan said. 

As triple zeroes glared in gold on the scoreboard, Houston signed his jersey, held it up and walked off with a message that every player and JSU fan will think about after the Tigers' 27–10 victory against Prairie View A&M (7–5, 6–3) in the SWAC title game.

"This is forever set in stone," Houston said. "This is forever set in stone."

With blue and white pompoms shaking in unison, the Sonic Boom of the South blasted "Go Home" from the stands of Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium as players shook hands and hugged their teammates. 

Jackson State's journey of winning the SWAC was complete. Or, as Warren confidently stated on the Tigers' sideline, "that's how you sweep the SWAC."

Jackson State (11–1, 9–0) earned its first 11-win season in program history. For perspective, Tigers head coach Deion Sanders—who took over the program with no college coaching experience but a plethora of NFL wisdom and knowledge—did something in two seasons that JSU legendary coaches like W.C. Gorden, James "Big Daddy" Carson, Robert Hill, Robert Hughes and Rick Comegy never accomplished.

While many doubted, Sanders believed.

SWAC Title Win

"Everybody didn't believe... probably 50 percent believed," Sanders said in the postgame news conference. "A high school guy, pro experience, knew the game but  didn't understand what I was capable of.

More: ‘We Needed a Deion Sanders': Jackson State United a City on its Way to a SWAC Title

"The nucleus, the inner core of this team believed that we would be sitting right here in this moment."

But, for Sanders, it was not just him that guided the program back to a spot where fans and alums had long been waiting for. He gives much credit to his coaching staff for their roles and expertise. However, one coach in specific—defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman—deserves a lot of credit. 

Sanders recalled a moment in the unprecedented spring '21 season in which opposing teams were moving the ball on the Tigers with ease and more than he and Thurman would have liked.

"He was making calls in the spring and I heard it on the headset," Sanders said. "He was calling out every play but we did not have the players to do what we needed done. ... Oh my God... I said DT.. it is what it is... we are going to be alright."

The Tigers' defense would be more than alright. The unit was exceptional. After an undefeated record in SWAC play, JSU's "Dark Side" defense" held all of its opponents to 21 points or less in every game and held three opposing teams from scoring in the fourth quarter of a game this season. 

Ahead of Saturday's game, Sanders told his coaches that all the offense needed to do was score 21 points. What a familiar number for Sanders—the number from his playing days along with the day he took over the Tigers' program in September '20. 

"They are not going to score 21 points on us, there is no way with the defense we have," Sanders said. "Defense is who we are and what we stand behind."

But, even with a resounding defensive performance—a unit that held the Panthers to 10 points in the game that includes zero points in the second half and a quarterback change from Jawon Pass to Trazon Connley in third quarter—Sanders was not satisfied.

The Tigers, which came into Saturday's game averaging the second most passing yards per game (270.1) in the SWAC, was held to 85. On bright side, JSU's rushing attack—one that was last in the conference (88.9 yards per game) entering the game—finished with 148 yards behind the legs of Peytton Pickett (107 yards) and Santee Marshall (50). 

"Offensively, we were horrible," Sanders said. 

PVAMU scored the first points of the game late in the first quarter. Following a timeout with 6:14 to play, Pass threw the ball to his receiver Ty Holden—who then heaved the ball down the middle of the field to a streaking Jailon Howard for a 35-yard touchdown pass.

But, then it was JSU's turn. Tigers quarterback Shedeur Sanders—who finished the game with 85 yards on 8-of-16 passing and a touchdown—connected with receiver Keith Corbin III to the Panthers' 27. A few plays later, Shedeur found Malachi Wideman in the right corner of the end zone for 16-yard touchdown pass, tying the game at 7–7.

Jackson State coach Deion Sanders celebrates.

The Panthers would score their final points of the game in the latter half of the second quarter with a 37-yard field goal from Luis Reyes. Despite an offense struggling to score, a special teams play—a 91-yard kick return from Isaiah Bolden— was the spark JSU needed and the Tigers were just heating up leading 13-10 at halftime.

PV looked to keep pace with JSU nearly seven minutes into the second half. However, the game defining moment was on the horizon. Trailing by three from from his own 5-yard line, Pass looked to connect with his receiver but instead found Houston, who returned it for a five yard touchdown to give the Tigers a 20–10 advantage after the extra point. 

In that moment, Sanders felt like the game was over.

"You know how hard it is to throw to come back on us," Sanders said. "Once you get up by ten points, we knew it was going to be a task."

JSU added insurance to its score with a five-yard touchdown run by Pickett, putting the game out of reach for Prairie View in the final minutes of the third quarter.

After the Tigers' defense defended its home field to close the game, Sanders—who was on his red scooter—sat next to the man who took a chance on him as a coach, JSU athletic director Ashley Robinson, in a crowded circle to receive the team's championship trophy from SWAC Commissioner Charles McClelland. 

Sanders' vision of winning the SWAC had come to fruition. But almost immediately after the celebratory moment, he reminded his players and the fans that the program had "one more" thing to accomplish.

"We got to finish what we started, "Sanders said. In my generation, you could not get up from the table unless you finished your meal, you could not quit something that you started. That [the win] was just another chapter."

The final exclamation point of JSU's season will come with a trip to the Cricket Celebration Bowl—a clash between the MEAC and SWAC champions—on Dec. 18 in Atlanta. This year's matchup will feature JSU against South Carolina State (6–5, 5–0 MEAC). 

Sanders will return to Atlanta, a city that he calls special and one he has always considered to be home. Before he became a two-time Super Bowl winner, he was drafted by the Falcons (played for Atlanta from '89 to '93) and played with the Braves in MLB from '91 to '94.

"That city is the city that chose me," Sanders said. "I can't wait to take these young men. 

"I've been in that stadium as an analyst but to be there as a coach was my dream ... I wanted to walk in there but I don't think that will be possible because I can put any pressure on my foot."

While Sanders may not walk inside the Mercedes-Benz Stadium, his impact for JSU and the exposure for HBCUs—with the help of his coaching staff—will be on full display.

"These guys [JSU players] can play," Sanders said. "It is my task to put the light of the mantle on top of the Christmas tree and let it shine because these guys have tremendous gifts. They just need an opportunity."

Jackson State has its opportunity. And, according to Tigers defensive line coach Jeff Weeks, the Tigers are ready.

"It's a new king in the SWAC."

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