NEW ORLEANS — Grambling State's rally ended less than a yard short.
Jonathan Williams was halted inside the 1 as time expired Saturday afternoon, allowing Southern to escape with a 52-45 win at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Southern (8-3, 8-1 Southwestern Athletic Conference) clinched the West Division crown, and will face East Division champion Alcorn State next Saturday in Houston for the conference title. Thanks to its defense.
"We got a good push, he didn't get in," said Southern defensive end Arthur Miley. "That's all that counts."
Mike Jones caught three passes for 130 yards, scoring twice, part of Southern's first-half dominance.
Austin Howard threw for 258 yards and three TDs — all three scores were in the first half. He paced Southern to a 31-10 lead late in the second quarter. Lenard Tillery rushed 27 times for 168 yards and two TDs.
"This will probably go down as one of the best classics ever," said Southern coach Dawson Odums, whose squad combined with Grambling State for a Bayou Classic record 97 points.
"There were lots of peaks and valleys, but whichever team was able to control its emotions until the end (would win)."
Williams engineered Grambling's rally from a 21-point deficit in the third quarter, including a 9-yard scramble on fourth down with 12 seconds left.
After a timeout, he then pushed forward on the game's final play, unable to escape Southern's swarming defense, ending the latest chapter in this annual matchup of historically black colleges.
Grambling opted for a quarterback sneak when an incomplete pass would have likely given the Tigers a second chance to score before time expired.
"If we get it, it's a great call," Grambling State coach Broderick Fobbs said. "If we don't get it, it's a bad call. That's football."
Williams finished with 450 passing yards and four touchdowns. He was sacked six times.
One season after a football team boycott because of poor facility conditions earned Grambling State national attention during a 1-11 season, the Jaguars' first season under Fobbs ended at 7-5 overall and 7-2 in conference.
Verlon Hunter caught 12 passes for 144 yards and two scores, including a 14-yard TD reception early in the fourth quarter.
Special teams plays highlighted the second half for both teams. Grambling State's Ka'Jandre Domino scored on a 99-yard kickoff return, Southern's Jaleel Richardson countered later with a 79-yard kickoff return for a score and the Tigers recovered their onside kick after Williams threw a 76-yard TD pass to Chester Rogers with 7:30 left. Then after a stalled drive, Southern's Herbert Edwards blocked Jonathan Wallace's punt.
Southern tried to secure a victory with a 37-yard field goal with 2:30 left, but Tyree Hollins blocked Greg Pittman's kick, allowing Williams one more chance at a comeback.
Grambling trails Southern 21-20 all-time in the Bayou Classic. Southern also leads the overall series 31-30.