Jackson, Miss. — Before he lifted his head to deliver his opening comments, Jackson State football coach T.C. Taylor glanced at his final stack of post-game stats for the 2023 season. JSU’s 28-24 loss to Alcorn State in front of 42,000 fans on Saturday at Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium wasn’t what Taylor visualized as the final scene of his first season as the Tigers head coach.
If it was up to Taylor, who waited in the shadows of Deion Sanders the last three seasons for his chance to lead the program, the last time assessing his team’s performance would have been on Dec. 16 in the annual Celebration Bowl in Atlanta. Atlanta marked the beginning for his “Guard Thee Yard” mantra for Taylor following JSU’s heartbreaking loss to North Carolina Central in last year’s clash between the MEAC and SWAC champions.
It’s also the city where Tiger fans fired off chants of “T-C. T-C.” from the bleachers of Center Parc Stadium in the final moments of JSU defeating South Carolina State in this year’s MEAC/SWAC Challenge, giving Taylor his first win at the helm of the program. Although Taylor wasn’t visibly frustrated behind the blue table, he wasn’t satisfied.
“When we started this thing [season] off, we talked about starting in Atlanta, finishing in Atlanta,” Taylor said. “And we fell a little short in that.”
However, Taylor’s goal to lead Jackson State (7-4, 5-3) back to the Celebration Bowl was dashed three weeks prior to Saturday’s loss when SWAC East foe Florida A&M defeated Alabama A&M to clinch the division crown and its spot in this year’s SWAC title game. But to some fans within the HBCU landscape, the Tigers’ dream of making three-straight SWAC championship game and Celebration Bowl appearances ended after JSU lost to FAMU in the Orange Blossom Classic in September.
In any case, Taylor hoped to send his seniors out with a win on Senior Day, especially for an elder statesman like senior tight end D.J. Stevens, who has been a part of the team prior to Taylor returning as an assistant in ‘19 under former head coach John Hendrick. After giving up 14 points to the Braves within the first seven minutes of the contest, JSU followed its standard order of business in outscoring opponents in the second quarter. Jacobian Morgan, who started his fourth game on Saturday, orchestrated two methodical offensive drives that were capped with touchdown passes of four and 26 yards respectively to tie the game at halftime.
Both teams scored touchdowns within the first four possessions of the third quarter that included a beautifully placed deep ball 38 yards down the left sideline from Morgan to Fabian McCray for a touchdown that sent Taylor airborne in his excitement and tied the game at 21.
After the short-lived celebration, two of the biggest themes that plagued the Tigers all season continued to take center stage: penalties and injuries. From JSU’s 31 with less than six minutes to play in the third, Jackson State football safety John Huggins was assessed a penalty for pass interference on a pass from Braves quarterback Aaron Allen to Malik Rodgers, elevating Alcorn to the TIgers’ 16-yard line. A couple of plays later, Allen launched his third touchdown of the game on a 12-yard pass to Rodgers, giving the Braves the 28-21 advantage.
After Morgan’s touchdown late in the third quarter, he didn’t re-enter the game again as he suffered an apparent shoulder injury. Jason Brown, who started JSU’s first seven games, stepped in for Morgan and aided the Tigers on a drive that resulted in a 35-yard field goal from Dylan Wasson to cut the Tigers’ deficit to four with nearly 7:00 to play in the fourth.
Even after the Tigers forced a punt and recorded an interception in two of the Braves final three possessions in the game, JSU’s final offensive drive of the season was the ultimate illustration of the program at times struggling with penalties in clutch situations. Freshman running back Ezequiel Johnson burst through the Braves defensive front for 42 yards before he was tackled at midfield. But after the explosive run, referees smacked JSU with three consecutive penalties—two for holding and one for a 15-yard facemask—that sent the Tigers backpedaling to their own 15-yard line.
When Taylor was asked about the penalty-ridden drive after the loss, he was not pleased.
“…I’ve never been a referee before,” he said. “I don’t know what they were seeing out there…In those kinds of situations, you just want to allow the players to decide a football game, you know, and I’m gonna leave it at that.”
What could have been Brown leading a game-winning drive and a potential eighth win for Taylor in his first season resulted in a overthrown ball to McCray on fourth and 17, a turnover on downs by the Tigers and a Braves’ sideline infused with excitement.
But, from a bigger picture, Taylor should hold his head high when grading the ‘23 campaign. He took over the program after the NFL Hall of Famer jetted to Colorado for a Power Five coaching opportunity in the Pac-12. Sanders took his sons, Shedeur and Shilo, to Colorado while also poaching other players from JSU who entered the transfer portal after his departure. For the players who did not retreat to Boulder, Colo., they entered the transfer portal in search of new teams.
Taylor brought in more than 70 new players to the program, worked with nearly an entire new staff and managed to finish 7-4 in his first season. For perspective, Taylor recorded the best winning percentage by a JSU head coach in his first full season since ‘99 under the late head coach Robert Hughes, who recorded a 9-3 campaign before notching three consecutive 7-4 seasons in his four-year tenure. Sanders’ first season at Jackson State—the unprecedented ‘21 campaign—was limited to seven games because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The 2023 Jackson State football season does not negate the fact that the Tigers must improve in their recruiting and limiting penalties and mistakes during games if they seek to play football in December. In fact, Taylor has preached those concepts all season and wasted no time in stating that he would not be resting on his laurels in the offseason.
“To be 7-4, that’s something good to build on,” Taylor said. “…We can’t just keep playing close football games, we want to be dominant, you know, be able to separate. … We’re looking forward to ‘24.”
Taylor believes he is building something special at his alma mater. With one season in the books, the road to “Guarding Thee Yard” in Year 2 begins now.
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