Jackson, Miss. — T.C. Taylor considers Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium his football sanctuary. The 73-year-old venue is the site where the McComb, Miss., native went from a popular high school quarterback to becoming the author of Jackson State’s single-season milestone for pass-receptions. But when Taylor emerged from the blue-and-white Tigers’ tunnel—with smoke from fireworks covering the face of he and his players as they entered the field—the Tigers’ coach possessed a nostalgic memory that carried a different responsibility.
Taylor, who turned 45 on Friday, has witnessed his fair share of runs out of JSU’s tunnel as a player and as an assistant coach when he returned to the program ahead of the ‘19 season under former head coach John Hendrick. But when Taylor retreated to the Tigers’ sideline in front of a sea of fans decked out in red and the program’s iconic “Sonic Boom of the South” marching band playing its classic “Get Ready” theme song ahead of Jackson State’s 22-16 victory against Bethune Cookman, he was no longer the assistant to Hendrick or Pro Football Hall of Famer Deion Sanders. Taylor was the face of the program, a mission that is not easy as an alum of the university and a task he views as a “huge responsibility” each day.
“These players, coaches and trainers count on me to make the right decisions,” Taylor said in the postgame news conference after Saturday’s win.
High Profile footsteps
The expectations could not be any higher for the Tigers’ coach, considering he played for two noteworthy coaches in James “Big Daddy” Carson and Robert Hughes from ‘98 to ‘01 and spent the last three seasons under Sanders’ tutelage. Since Taylor joined JSU’s coaching staff, the Tigers (3-2) have won four of their five matchups in the W.C. Gorden Classic that includes Saturday’s rendition of the battle named after the winningest coach in program history. Taylor was thrilled for the Tigers’ home opener after spending the first four weeks of the ‘23 campaign as road warriors and totalling more than 2,000 miles in distance from Jackson—between Atlanta, Miami, Baton Rouge and San Marcos, Texas—for multiple HBCU classics, a clash with its fierce rival and a FBS money game.
HBCU GameDay: Jackson State Edges Past Bethune Cookman in Home Opener
However, he never imagined that a safety on a sack by Tigers linebacker Issac Peppers on Wildcats backup quarterback Walter Simmons III would be JSU’s first points of the game. Taylor surely did not think he would lose both of his punters due to injury, prompting him to acquire JSU women’s soccer player Leilani Armenta to handle the kicking duties while becoming the first women’s football player in school history.
Special teams have been the Achilles heel in the first quarter of the Tigers’ season. In surrendering 77 points to FBS opponent Texas State the week prior, a great deal of the Bobcats’ success offensively stemmed from great field position to start their drives. Bethune Cookman’s average field position in Saturday’s game was from its 34-yard line. Even more, seven of the Wildcats’ 13 total offensive possessions began near midfield or in Tigers’ territory.
While Taylor later called on backup running back Emari Matthews to serve as the main punter after giving Armenta a groundbreaking opportunity, it provided him with a makeshift solution to a problem that he had never experienced. “…I had to find somebody,” Taylor said. “LL [Armenta] did well in high school… and she came out and did what we asked her to do.”
Recognizing Jackson State Defense
So, did the Tigers’ defense, a unit that has empowered the Tigers’ offense and served as the catalyst to JSU’s wins this season. After trailing 9-8 at halftime and failing to secure an offensive touchdown in its opening drive of the second half, the Wildcats appeared on their way to add more points in the game. That’s until Tigers’ Devonta Davis landed a massive hit on BC running back Terry Lindsey, forcing a fumble that led to a 32-yard scoop-and-score by JSU’s Athen Smith to give Jackson State a 14-9 advantage. “That was a huge score and kind of a difference in the game,” Taylor added. “…These guys [defensive unit] came out tonight and they had domination on their mind.”
Then, following another BC turnover in a span of 20 seconds on the ensuing kickoff, three Wildcat drives that ended in punts and a critical stop on fourth down by JSU’s defense, the Tigers added their final score of the game when Irv Mulligan burst through the Wildcats’ interior and dashed down the left sideline for a 66-yard touchdown run, giving JSU a 22-9 lead.
While BC added its last touchdown in the final minutes of the game, JSU fans had begun celebrating the victory. In the win, Taylor recognized his defense on Saturday night after not recognizing the unit against Texas State. But as Taylor and his squad enjoy the win, he must begin crafting the plan to revitalize his team’s lack of stability on third-down conversions—going 4-for-15 in the contest—as well as Jason Brown’s struggles in the passing attack that totaled 88 yards of the team’s total of 348 in the game.
Against Texas State, Brown threw for 209 yards on 16-for-29 passes with one rushing touchdown and one interception. “We got to be able to throw the ball around the yard because we really got some receivers on the perimeter that can fly,” Taylor said. “Third down, that’s when you usually get your throws in… we gotta continue to work on that.”
It was not the most appealing win. Even more, at times on Saturday, it felt like “The Vet” lacked the buzz and energy that has made it a premier HBCU and FCS venue over the years. But, after a four-week expedition across the southern region of the United States and a day after his birthday, Taylor can now celebrate his personal milestone coupled with hopefully the first of many football milestones he will accomplish at the helm of JSU’s football program.
In a game that generated big emotions, a reflection of his playing days learning from Carson and honoring Gorden, Taylor now adds another highlight to his ledger of JSU memories.