Southern has plenty of work to do this week to fix its defense.
The Jaguars gave up 410 rushing yards, 682 total yards and 39 first downs in Saturday’s 56-16 loss at Alcorn State. The defense’s inability to slow the Braves contributed to Southern’s largest margin of defeat in a Southwestern Athletic Conference game since a 54-7 loss to Texas Southern in 2010.
One bright spot for Southern is that damage was done by the most prolific offense in the SWAC. The Braves lead the conference in scoring (47.0), yards (514.2) and rushing yards (318.0), rankings they held before increasing their averages against the Jaguars.
This week’s opponent, Arkansas-Pine Bluff, is ninth in scoring (17.0), eighth in yards (330.2) and fifth in rushing yards (165.5).
“We need to come in with more intensity, more pride and more effort,” nose tackle Gabe Echols said after practice Monday night. “We missed some assignments and, like (coach Dawson Odums) says, missed assignments are a lack of focus, a lack of concentration. We’re not focused on that very play at hand. We might be worried about something that happened that play before, and it causes us to miss that assignment. We need to gather our focus, and we’ll be all right.”
Even though the Lions appear to present a less-daunting challenge than Alcorn did, the Jaguars still have to figure out a way to stop them on third down. Alcorn converted 12 of 16 third and fourth downs into a first down. The average distance needed on those conversions was 4.9 yards.
“They dominated us on third down and in the rushing statistics,” Odums said. “We’ve got to get off the field on third down. We didn’t do a very good job. We know we have a better team than that.”
The Braves got themselves into seven conversion situations in which they needed just 1 or 2 yards but converted just four of them. They actually did better when they need more yardage to continue drives, converting from 5 yards (twice), 6 (twice), 7, 12 and 14.
“It’s heartbreaking to get all the way to third down and then we let them out the gate,” Echols said. “You’ve got to be focused every play, and you’ve got to have even more focus, more pride and more discipline on third down to get off the field. It’s one thing to stop them on first and second, but you’ve got to seal the deal on third down. It makes it even harder when you’ve got them where you want them on third-and-long and they capitalize on a big play.”
Southern is last in the SWAC in third-down defense (47.4 percent), which has long-term implications as well as short-term ones.
The longer the defense stays on the field, the more tired the starters get and the sooner Odums has to put in reserves to let the starters catch their breath. Southern doesn’t have a lot of depth, and much of what it does have is provided by true or redshirt freshmen.
The Jaguars were missing eight defensive players from their two-deep Saturday because of injuries or a lack of academic certification.
“Once we get into our depth, it’s a big dropoff between our ones and our twos,” Odums said. “Our ones can’t play the whole game. Teams are figuring that out. We’re just not a deep team, so our guys are getting worn down.”
Fatigue was an issue two weeks ago at Prairie View as the Panthers gained 226 of their 475 yards in the fourth quarter.
The defense got some help Monday when senior defensive back Jaleel Richardson, who hasn’t played this season while awaiting academic certification, was cleared to play against UAPB.
The defensive shortcomings against Alcorn were obvious, but the Jaguars could have done a better job of playing complementary football as well. The offense converted just 8-of-20 third and fourth downs, which led to fewer scoring opportunities, worse field position and less rest for the defense. Alcorn held the ball for 35 minutes, 15 seconds.
Southern had to play defense on 82 snaps a week after playing 87 against Prairie View. In the past three games, the defense has played an average of 83 snaps compared to 63 in the first two games.
The offense ran 67 plays against Alcorn and 65 against Prairie View. In four games against NCAA competition, the Jaguars offense has run an average of 66 plays, and the opponents have run an average of 82.
“It’s third down — period,” Odums said. “The defense has got to get off the field on third down, and the offense has got to stay on field on third down.”
Odums said he’s reluctant to use a hurry-up offense, even though it has been effective at times.
“It’s a balancing act,” he said, “and we’re doing the best we can to balance this act.”