NORMAL, Ala. — Southern fell two touchdowns behind Alabama A&M early in the third quarter Saturday, but the score was the least of its worries.
Senior offensive lineman Zach Brown lay on the ground motionless for several minutes with a neck injury. The Jaguars watched as he was strapped to a board, lifted onto a stretcher and taken away from Louis Crews Stadium to a hospital by ambulance. Moments later, the deficit peaked at 34-14.
“Everybody on the sideline was encouraging each other, and we said, ‘We’re going to do this for Zach,’ ” safety Dionte McDuffy said.
Southern regrouped and scored two quick touchdowns before the end of the quarter, then Malcolm Crockett ran 1 yard for a touchdown that gave the Jaguars their only lead of the game with 51 seconds left.
The 35-34 margin held up as Southern won back-to-back games for the first time this season to improve to 4-3 and 3-1 in the Southwestern Athletic Conference. The Jaguars have an open date next week before visiting Jackson State on Oct. 25. The Bulldogs fell to 2-5 and 1-3.
Things turned out well for Brown, too. He was diagnosed with a neck stinger and rejoined the team for the bus ride back to Baton Rouge.
“Coach (Dawson) Odums has been harping on us about winning back-to-back games,” wide receiver Justin Morgan said. “This is just the spark we needed.”
The comeback started just two plays after A&M scored what would be its final points of the game with 6:08 left in the third quarter.
Austin Howard launched a 79-yard touchdown pass to Willie Quinn, who had beaten single coverage to get open down the right sideline. Just 3½ minutes later, Howard duplicated the feat with Morgan, who made a juggling catch before completing a 68-yard touchdown.
“Me and Willie switched out,” Morgan said. “We had a different package where Willie went outside and I went inside, and we left him one-on-one with the defensive back to see what happened, and Willie made a play. Then we just flip-flopped, and I went outside and Willie went inside, and we ran the same play.”
Suddenly, Southern was within six points with 1:27 left in the third quarter.
“That put us back in the game real quick,” Odums said.
Meanwhile, Bulldogs quarterback Jaymason Lee, who completed 21-of-34 passes for 292 yards and three touchdowns, was sidelined by an undisclosed injury on A&M’s first play of the fourth quarter. Brandon Wells replaced him and immediately lost a fumble to Gabe Echols at the Jaguars 34.
Wells would be replaced on the Bulldogs’ next possession by Chris Leachman, but that didn’t help. A&M went scoreless on its last eight possessions, which included a lost fumble on Leachman’s first play.
“We’ve got to learn to get out of our own way,” Bulldogs coach James Spady said.
But after the two quick strikes by Howard, who finished 17-of-41 for 265 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, Southern went five straight possessions without scoring.
It used all of its timeouts before Rhaheim Ledbetter sacked Leachman to force a punt. Quinn’s 28-yard return put the Jaguars at the Bulldogs 44 with 3:01 left.
“We knew, if they got the football back, they were going to run out the clock,” said offensive lineman Allen Spry, who replaced Brown. “We knew that drive had to be the one.”
Morgan said he spoke briefly to Howard before the drive.
“I just said, ‘I need the best out of you right here,’ ” Morgan said.
On third-and-9, Howard completed a 14-yard pass to Reggie Travis. On third-and-8, he completed a 6-yarder to Travis and, on the next play, Crockett gained 4 to set up first-and-goal at the 1. Then Crockett finished the nine-play drive to tie it.
“That drive that he put together as the starting quarterback of this team says a lot about his character,” Odums said of Howard. “It says a lot about his composure, and it says a lot about him as an individual.”
Greg Pittman’s extra point completed just the second game this season in which Southern didn’t miss a PAT. A&M ran out of time without reaching midfield on its final possession.
“We didn’t look at the scoreboard,” said running back Lenard Tillery, who had the Jaguars’ first two touchdowns. “We knew they kept scoring, but we just kept working.”
Southern trailed 24-14 after a first half in which the defense gave up 19 first downs. The offense made things harder on the defense at the start of the third quarter when Howard and Tillery mishandled a handoff and A&M recovered at the Jaguars 23.
Arthur Miley’s sack helped force a field goal, and Cesar Diaz-Ramon’s 40-yarder made it 27-14.
“If we wanted to win this game,” Miley said, “somebody on the defensive side of the ball had to make a play.”
On the ensuing possession, Southern faced fourth-and-7 and faked a punt. Morgan was stopped for a 7-yard loss, giving the Bulldogs the ball at the Jaguars 31. A sack by Donald Phillips helped push A&M out of field goal range and led to a punt.
Suddenly the defense, which allowed 24 points on A&M’s first four possessions, was on track, and gradually the offense got in sync.