MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Things seem to have come easily for Southern in its first three Southwestern Athletic Conference games.
And that’s a double-edged sword.
On one side, it shows the Jaguars are capable of winning a third consecutive West Division title. They dominated Mississippi Valley State 50-13, handled Jackson State 50-31 and toyed with Alabama State 45-34 on Saturday night in ASU Stadium.
On the other side, it creates an opportunity for a team to lose its edge if it’s not careful.
Obviously the offense has moved the ball and scored points with ease, and the defense and special teams have played well enough for Southern to go 3-for-3 without being seriously threatened.
But for much of the second half Saturday — and for brief spells in the first two SWAC games — the Jaguars seemed to lose their edge and let the opponent set the tone. It didn’t last long enough for the outcome to be in doubt, but it was enough to suggest this team is still learning how to put opponents away efficiently.
It’s easy for players to lose their focus, become distracted, maybe freelance a little when the scoreboard and clock suggest the outcome is no longer in doubt. But teams intent on becoming champions learn to maintain their focus, avoid being distracted and resist freelancing by ignoring what the scoreboard and the clock is telling them.
Each game isn’t just a challenge to get a victory rather than a defeat, but also an opportunity to compete for 60 minutes against an opponent whose presence on the same field forces you to get better, regardless of whether they’re your equal.
Each moment in those 60 minutes should be spent competing against the opponent as though it’s a scoreless game that has just kicked off, even when it’s a decisive victory that’s winding down.
Southern bolted to a 33-0 second-quarter lead against Valley, then allowed a touchdown late in the second quarter and another early in the third before re-establishing command.
The Jaguars led Jackson State 29-7 at halftime but were outscored 24-21 in the second half.
Then came Saturday night. The Jaguars were playing their most complete game of the season in taking a 24-0 lead early in the third quarter.
Then, on a kickoff return, kicker Greg Pittman, who takes pride in being a football player even when he’s not using his foot, made an impressive tackle. But in his exuberance over his hit, Pittman hit a second Hornets player after the whistle, drawing an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
That enabled ASU to start from its 45-yard line. The defense could have gotten yet another stop and continued the shutout, but eight plays later it was 24-8, the crowd had awoken and there was enough time for the home team to come back.
A 58-yard kickoff return by Willie Quinn and a 6-yard touchdown pass from Austin Howard to Montrell Jones six plays later put the Jaguars back in command.
Each time ASU threatened to make a run at Southern, Howard and the offense put more distance between the teams on the scoreboard, and the Hornets never got within a score.
Nonetheless, after impressively building a 24-0 lead, the Jaguars were outscored 34-21. One factor in the turnaround was that coach Dawson Odums and his staff took the opportunity to give starters rest and backups experience, which is useful when you can do it.
The experience that youngsters have gotten will pay dividends, and there have been such opportunities in every game because Southern’s two nonconference losses against Louisiana Tech (62-15) and Georgia (48-6) have been as lopsided as their victories.
But one of these days, the Jaguars will find themselves playing from behind and fighting to the final second — or both. That day could come as soon as Saturday, when Southern hosts Prairie View in what figures to be its most competitive matchup to date.
Whether that day arrives Saturday or later in the season, it will be a time when losing focus, becoming distracted or freelancing could be the difference between winning and losing.
Follow Les East on Twitter: @EastAdvocate.