Paul Letlow, ULMWarhawks.com Online Columnist
MONROE — Josh Johnson’s phone rang once during his postgame press conference and he had more than 40 texts waiting for replies. A breakout night on the field made the ULM running back a popular man on Saturday night following a 31-9 season-opening win over Grambling State.
While Johnson didn’t immediately take his call while addressing the media, the junior answered the bell with 173 yards on just 10 carries, including a 51-yard touchdown on his first carry of the year.
“If it was a career night for me, it was a career night for everyone in the offense,” Johnson said after crediting his offensive line, his quarterback and the receivers blocking for him. “That’s what it’s all about.”
Johnson, who showed off impressive breakaway speed and elusive moves in traffic, added a 37-yard scoring run in the fourth quarter and averaged 17.3 yards per touch.
“You look at Grambling last year and they were a hard team to run against,” ULM coach Matt Viator said. “They play that 3-3 stack, they’re in and they’re out. They make you look bad at times. I was glad we stayed with it and kept hitting it.”
A bustling crowd of 28,327 looked on at Malone Stadium as ULM (1-0) improved to 4-0 in the I-20 series that began in 2007. The attendance ranks as the fourth best in ULM history.
“For the first game, it creates a great atmosphere,” Viator said.
Johnson’s splashy performance highlighted a ULM rushing attack that generated 315 yards on 39 attempts. Red-shirt freshman Isaiah Phillips added 43 yards on nine carries in his debut.
ULM’s defense bent for 407 yards but limited Grambling to just one score in three red zone chances, including a pair of fourth-down stops. The Warhawks also pitched a shutout in the second half.
“We definitely have to correct a lot,” said linebacker Chase Day, who led ULM with 12 tackles. “We know this is not good enough to get us where we want to be, so we’re going to keep on getting better and better. But we did show some good signs tonight.”
ULM generated 501 yards total offense on 67 plays as Caleb Evans completed 19-of-25 passes for 183 yards and one touchdown. ULM converted 7-of-14 third down conversions and did not punt during the game.
“All in all, we’ll certainly take the win,” Viator said. “We beat a good football team and we’ll try to take this and move forward to next week.”
In the first quarter, the two teams traded missed field-goal attempts before Johnson bolted through a wide hole and raced 51 yards for touchdown. JJacob Meeks added the PAT with 5:42 left in the first quarter for a 7-0 ULM lead.
“Our O-line did a good job of opening up the hole,” Johnson said. “Make one guy miss and score, that’s basically what it was.”
Johnson glanced up at the video board during the run and realized he was pulling away from the pack.
“I was just trying to hit another gear,” he said.
With a 12-play, 76-yard drive, Grambling narrowed the margin to 7-6 with 31 seconds left in the period on a 15-yard touchdown pass from Geremy Hickbottom to Lyndon Rash. Garrett Urban missed the extra-point attempt.
Evans caught Grambling’s defense trying to sub and hit Xavier Brown for a 16-yard touchdown pass. The Warhawks needed six plays, including a 25-yard run by Phillips, to go 67 yards and go ahead 14-6.
Turnover margin was a hot topic in the offseason and ULM’s defense balanced the ledger late in the second quarter when Day picked off the Grambling quarterback just three plays after an Evans interception.
“All offseason, we’re preaching taking the ball away,” Day said. “We need turnovers. We need turnovers. Turnovers win games and make a big difference.”
Nine plays later, ULM converted the takeaway into points as Meeks stroked a 40-yard field goal with 1:16 left in the half.
Grambling quickly moved 46 yards in eight plays, allowing Urban to kick a 41-yard field goal with seven seconds showing, and the Warhawks carried their 17-9 lead to the locker room at halftime.
“We’ve got to do a better job on offense, and we’ve got to get them off the field on third down,” Viator said as he left the field.
ULM took the opening drive of the second half and marched 76 yards in seven plays, going ahead 24-9 on a fourth-down, 1-yard touchdown plunge by Austin Vaughn. A 39-yard run by McCray, with a 15-yard personal foul against Grambling tacked on at the end, helped flip the field.
Grambling drove deep into ULM territory on the next series, but the Warhawks forced a turnover on downs as Day stopped Hickbottom short at the 22 on a fourth-and-6 run.
Overall, the third quarter lacked continuity with nine combined penalties for 90 yards.
Johnson gave ULM another offensive jolt with a 37-yard touchdown run with 14:52 remaining in the game. Johnson had runs of 26 and 12 yards, and Xavier Brown caught an 18-yard pass on third-and-6 as the Warhawks went 97 yards on six plays in just 2:08 to extend the lead to 31-9.
ULM held for another key turnover on downs in the fourth quarter after giving up 86 yards to the Tigers. Rashaad Harding broke up a pass in the end zone on fourth-and-goal from the 4.
“My hat’s off to Matt Viator and their staff,” Grambling coach Broderick Fobbs said. “They did an exceptional job winning the ball game. I wish them the best of the luck the rest of the season. We’ll be a good team as well.”
Viator was impressed with Grambling quarterback Geremy Hickbottom, who completed 18-of-31 passes for 157 yards and one score. He added 68 yards on 10 carries.
ext: The Warhawks travel to Florida State on Sept. 7 for a 4 p.m. meeting with the Seminoles. Florida State (0-1) lost 36-31 to Boise State on Saturday.