NORMAL, Ala. — After Southern scored the game’s final 21 points to beat Alabama A&M 35-34 on Saturday, coach Dawson Odums and several players talked about the potential for the win to be a springboard to a strong stretch run.
They said it could wind up being one of those games that defines a season.
Of course, this season is far from defined. Southern still has a modest overall record (4-3) but a solid Southwestern Athletic Conference mark (3-1). It naturally hopes that its first set of back-to-back wins helps trigger several more victories.
The potential for this victory to be the “signature win” that Odums alluded to lies not in the quality of the opposition. The Bulldogs are 2-5 and 1-3, still in search of an identity under first-year coach James Spady — though they clearly outplayed the Jaguars for nearly three quarters. There’s no disputing that the injury that sidelined A&M quarterback Jaymason Lee for virtually the entire fourth quarter was a key factor in the outcome.
Nor is Southern’s level of play the reason for this victory perhaps having a long-lasting effect. The offense, defense and special teams all had moments, and in some cases quarters, they’d rather forget.
The defense was a pushover on the Bulldogs’ first four possessions, allowing 24 points, and A&M made 19 first downs in the first half.
The offense was inconsistent in the first half, mixing two touchdowns with three punts; was penalty-plagued to start the third quarter but spectacular to finish it; and unable to deliver a knockout blow on five possessions until doing so on the final opportunity in the game’s last minute.
The special teams made two huge plays — a 66-yard kickoff return by Danny Johnson and an 18-yard run by Justin Morgan out of field goal formation to produce Southern’s first touchdown.
In a way, the Jaguars followed their most complete effort of the season — their 51-36 victory against Arkansas-Pine Bluff a week earlier — with another team effort. This was a team effort borne from the fact that, whenever one or more phases is struggling, another comes up with a big play or series to keep the game manageable until all three phases finally mesh.
After the special teams led the way on the first touchdown drive, the offense managed an 85-yard scoring surge to keep Southern within striking distance until the defense got its act together.
A lost fumble and failed run from punt formation early in the third quarter could have been disastrous, but the defense forced a field goal and a punt. Two scoring opportunities yielded just three points for A&M, which settled for a 27-14 edge instead of a stranglehold.
After a 44-yard touchdown pass — essentially the defense’s only major breakdown play in its last 13 possessions — gave the Bulldogs a 34-14 lead, the Jaguars offense came to life.
Austin Howard’s 79-yard touchdown to Willie Quinn and a 68-yarder to Morgan just 3½ minutes later got Southern within six heading to the fourth quarter. The defense kept the margin at six while the offense tried to muster a winning drive. When using all of its timeouts gave Southern one last opportunity, the special teams came through when Quinn returned a punt 28 yards to the A&M 44 with 3:01 left.
“I knew we were going to score,” linebacker Demetrius Carter said.
That they did: Howard and Reggie Travis converted on one third down, Malcolm Crockett found success on a fourth down and Crockett ran in from 1 yard for the deciding score.
If you’re looking for a stylish performance that’s going to show Southern is a serious contender to repeat as SWAC champion, you certainly didn’t get it Saturday.
What you did get was a win the Jaguars had to have, that it got thanks to an improbable comeback that sends them into an open date in solid position for the stretch run.
Southern has two weeks to prepare for its final visit to an opponent’s campus — Oct. 25 at Jackson State. That gives time for injured players to get healthier, sore players to get less sore and the coaches to do the usual self-scouting and tendency-breaking to make it a little harder for opponents to prepare for a team that has put seven performances on tape.
The tape from Saturday will reveal a lot of blemishes, but sometimes the wins that are remembered most are the ones that come despite obvious blemishes.