PRAIRIE VIEW, Texas — Southern had to adapt to a variety of changes that it couldn’t control during its nonconference schedule.
Then, when the Jaguars opened Southwestern Athletic Conference play Saturday night, they chose to make several changes that paid big dividends in a 34-24 victory against Prairie View at Blackshear Field.
After using Austin Howard to relieve Deonte Shorts in a quarterback platoon in the first three games, Southern started Howard and played him the whole way. The true freshman from West St. John responded by throwing for one touchdown and running for another.
Howard was an efficient 8-of-15 for 108 yards as, after a series of losses at wide receiver, the Jaguars turned to a power running game. Lenard Tillery responded with 135 yards and a touchdown before limping off with cramps in the fourth quarter.
Throw in a boost that first-time starters Roshaud Turner and Brian McCain gave the linebackers; improved play by a secondary featuring second-time starters Blake Monroe, Justin Bethancourt and Ki-Jana Curtis; and the defense stymied a usually potent Prairie View offense before tiring late.
For special-teams good measure, Willie Quinn added a back-breaking 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.
In the end, Southern (2-2, 1-0) led wire to wire and looked like a team capable of defending its SWAC championship despite a rash of losses to inexperience and eligibility and certification issues. It was just one game, and the Jaguars have another tough road test against Alcorn State next week, but it was an impressive start.
“We got our butt beat twice, so coming out we wanted to see where we were,” Tillery said. “We came out pretty good. We didn’t dominate, but we got the win.”
Jaguars coach Dawson Odums summed up the performance in one word: “character.”
“I think we have the right guys in this program,” he continued. “I know there are some guys at home watching — and I love them and appreciate them and I hope to get them back — but the guys here got it done. They did it.
“They came to play tonight. We put everything behind us on Monday and buried our past, and we look forward to moving on.”
The Panthers, runners-up to the Jaguars in the West Division last season and the preseason choice to finish second this year, fell to 0-3 and 0-2.
Southern took the second-half kickoff and quickly built on its 24-10 halftime lead as Howard threw a 24-yard touchdown pass to Dillon Beard. Greg Pittman’s 30-yard field goal pushed the lead to 34-10 after three quarters.
Prairie View came to life as former Glen Oaks standout Johntá Hebert, who finished with 133 yards on 21 carries, ran 61 yards for a touchdown on the first play of the fourth quarter, and Arthur Lockett ran 30 yards for a touchdown to make it 34-24 with 9:23 left.
The Panthers got the ball back after a punt with a little more than seven minutes left and moved to the Southern 12 but turned the ball over on downs with 1:41 left.
“One thing they can say about Prairie View is we might not be the smartest team, but we fight hard,” Panthers coach Heishma Northern said. “We just need to find a way to get out of our own way.”
Despite Prairie View’s late push, the game was much more conventional than last year’s meeting in Mumford Stadium when Southern won 62-59 in double overtime and the teams combined for nearly 1,400 yards.
“They didn’t have anything left in the gas tank, but I told them it’s going to be empty if you are giving it your all,” Odums said. “Just to see that willpower was great. It was a long way from that shootout we had last year.
Southern threw Prairie View a curve right away by starting its passing quarterback and going with two tight ends and running the ball.
After the Panthers went three-and-out on the game’s first possession, a 14-yard punt gave the Jaguars the ball at the Prairie View 38. Tyre Bracken totaled 12 yards on two carries then, after a holding penalty on Zach Brown negated a 16-yard run, Tillery ran 36 yards for a touchdown.
“The game plan was to have more of a balance, but we came out with Tyre (Bracken) running downfield and we decided, ‘Don’t fix it if it ain’t broke,’ and we kept running,” Tillery said.
Greg Pittman made a 39-yard field goal that gave the Jaguars a 10-0 lead after one quarter. Then Jerry Lovelocke’s 28-yard completion to Nick Pitre triggered the first Panthers drive, and the pair teamed up for a 4-yard touchdown on the second play of the second quarter.
Tillery’s 21-yard run led to Howard’s 4-yard run and a 17-7 lead.
On the kickoff after a Panthers field goal, Quinn caught the ball at his 2, just inside the sideline, started across the field, then cut back up the right sideline, cut back left again across midfield and raced to his second career touchdown on a kickoff return and a 24-10 lead.