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HBCU Football

Prairie View back in SWAC title conversation with win over Grambling

Panthers’ offense under new coach Eric Dooley scored early to put the game away

When in the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC), do as the Grambling Tigers do. That’s the message Prairie View athletic director Ashley Robinson delivered to Panther Nation when he made talented Grambling assistant Eric Dooley the Panthers’ 33rd football coach.

Entering Saturday’s annual Grambling-Prairie View clash in the Southwest Airlines State Fair Classic, Prairie View had lost four straight in the series. To understand Robinson’s Grambling fixation, go back to 2015 when the Tigers won the first of three consecutive SWAC West Division titles, with the Panthers finishing second once and third twice during that span.

Prior to losing four straight to Grambling, Prairie View beat the Tigers three years in a row. The new-look Panthers took a bold leap against their archnemesis, with a 22-16 victory before 47,921 fans at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. It was Tigers coach Broderick Fobbs’ first loss against Prairie View, and it broke the Tigers’ 26-game SWAC winning streak.

Prairie View now has the inside track on the SWAC West title and a spot in the SWAC championship game Dec. 1 in Birmingham, Alabama.

For a team attempting to overcome self-doubt against a longtime foe, the win didn’t come easily — and nearly ended in a deflating loss, as sophomore quarterback Geremy Hickbottom replaced freshman starter Aldon Clark and guided two fourth-quarter touchdown drives that pulled the Tigers within 22-16 with 3:34 to play. Victory appeared even more elusive for Prairie View (3-3 overall, 2-0 in SWAC) when Grambling (1-3, 1-1) recovered the ensuing onside kick to put its offense back in business. It wasn’t until Panthers junior safety Ju’Anthony Parker intercepted Hickbottom inside the 10 that the Panthers were finally able to exhale.

Prairie View now has the inside track on the SWAC West title and a spot in the SWAC championship game Dec. 1 in Birmingham, Alabama.

Robinson has no doubt he got the right man in Dooley.

When former Prairie View coach Willie Simmons returned to his hometown of Tallahassee to take over Florida A&M’s program in December, Robinson wanted to replace him with more than just another good football coach. Although Simmons became only the second Prairie View coach in 50 years to record three consecutive winning seasons, he was 0-3 against Fobbs, losing by a combined score of 140-91.

In hiring Dooley, Robinson targeted a key coach from Prairie View’s biggest rival who brings instant credibility and vast championship experience.

“The championship pedigree is all around,” Robinson said about his first-year coach. “He played in it. Coached in it. He has been a part of teams that won nine SWAC championships and six HBCU national championships, and we look forward to him leading Prairie View to football championship success.”

Prairie View’s first win over Grambling since 2013 notwithstanding, there’s much to like about Dooley, who played wide receiver for Grambling legend Eddie Robinson from 1985-88 and won two SWAC titles as a player. “That was the foundation that was laid for me, playing for Coach Robinson,” Dooley said.

As Grambling’s offensive coordinator the past four seasons, Dooley’s units averaged at least 31.0 points each year and ranked first or second in the SWAC in scoring each of the past three seasons. In 2015, Grambling ranked fourth in the nation in scoring (41.3 points), tallied 65 touchdowns and averaged 470 yards per game. Under Dooley, the Tigers featured the last three SWAC Offensive Players of the Year, capped by winning the Celebration Bowl in 2016.

If that wasn’t enough to excite Panther Nation, Dooley served under legendary Southern coach Pete Richardson from 1997 to 2009. Before returning to coach at his alma mater, Dooley elevated Arkansas-Pine Bluff’s offense in 2012, helping the Golden Lions achieve a school-record 10 wins in capturing their first SWAC title since 1966 along with their first HBCU national championship.

After Prairie View’s first five games, junior quarterback Jalen Morton was No. 4 nationally with 1,158 passing yards. Morton threw for 269 yards and four touchdowns against Grambling.

Regarding the always heated Grambling-Prairie View rivalry, Dooley said, “One person I won’t have to stop is myself. I won’t have to go against Coach Dooley. That’s one offense that will be stopped.”

Shots fired.

With Dooley standing on the opposite sideline, Grambling totaled 278 yards and averaged only 3.3 yards per play, with Hickbottom accounting for 92 passing yards after entering the game late in the third quarter. The Tigers were held to their lowest point total against Prairie View since 2013 when the Panthers won 31-3. Meanwhile, Prairie View amassed 408 total yards against Grambling, the fifth time in six games this year the Panthers topped 400 total yards.

In his first head-to-head matchup against Fobbs, Dooley displayed a strong coaching moment late in the second quarter after a 23-yard reception by Grambling’s Lyndemian Brooks, who was stopped at the Prairie View 44. Dooley immediately called timeout and gathered the defense with the Panthers leading 15-0. Two plays later, freshman safety Drake Cheatum intercepted Clark, returning momentum to the Panthers.

The Panthers’ two first-quarter touchdowns were highlight material. On the first score, Morton rolled left and lofted a high toss to 6-foot-2 senior Markcus Hardy, who snatched the ball from a Grambling defender and high-stepped along the sideline for a 38-yard touchdown to make it 6-0. The second was a screen pass from Morton to 5-foot-6 junior Dawonya Tucker, who picked up blockers downfield and weaved through defenders to complete an 80-yard touchdown for a 12-0 lead.

Morton later ripped off a long run to set up a short touchdown toss to Zarrian Holcombe for a 22-2 cushion in the third quarter.

John Harris is a writer, author, editor and digital journalist who has worked for the Philadelphia Inquirer, St. Petersburg Times, Fort Worth Star-Telegram and Hunt Scanlon Media. He is co-authoring Pro Football Hall of Famer Edgerrin James' autobiography, From Gold Teeth to Gold Jacket.