The Southern offensive line has had ups and downs and has changed around its working parts on several occasions throughout the course of the season, but it’s safe to say that the Jaguars’ unit may have put together its strongest performance of the season on its biggest stage.
“We’ve got one of the best offensive line coaches in the country (Chennis Berry),” said Southern coach Dawson Odums. “Coach Berry does an outstanding job of getting that group prepared to protect, and tonight (quarterback Austin Howard) didn’t even get hit much.
“But if you play man-to-man, and we can protect, we can take the cover off the roof of the defense.”
The Jaguars’ offensive line pushed the Grambling defense around for the majority of Southern’s 52-45 victory over the Tigers in Saturday’s Bayou Classic. Southern accumulated 484 yards of offense on the day — including 226 yards rushing — and had its second-highest scoring output of the season against one of the better defensive lines in the Southwestern Athletic Conference.
“This was a heavyweight fight, and if you get on the ropes, you have to answer the bell,” Odums said. “Sometimes you have to just answer the bell…I think this was one of our better offensive outputs.”
Southern running back Lenard Tillery may have been the biggest beneficiary from the Jaguars’ strong offensive line play this season, becoming the first 1,000-yard rusher for the Jaguars since Kenneth Peoples did it 11 years ago. Tillery’s 27-carry, 183-yard performance Saturday gave him 1,156 rushing yards on the season.
“It means a lot to me to be the first guy to pull it off in 10 or 11 years,” Tillery said. “But, it means more to my offensive line. In the beginning of the season, things weren’t going my way, and they just kept on encouraging me. When it was finally my time, we gelled beautifully.”
Southern’s offensive line has been led by right tackle Dewayne Houston and right guard Zach Brown all season, while Reginald Redding and Allen Spry have begun to lock up the left side of the line for the Jaguars. They allowed a SWAC-low seven sacks on the season despite the many changes they had to deal with throughout the season.
The place where the Southern offensive line’s impact was felt the most in Saturday’s victory were the numerous big plays the Jaguars made offensively to break the game open.
Howard connected on long touchdown passes of 45 and 55 yards to wide receiver Mike Jones in the first half. The second Jones touchdown catch gave Southern a 31-10 lead with 3:50 left in the second quarter. The redshirt junior receiver, who came into Saturday’s game with 11 catches for 158 yards on the year, also added a 30-yard catch in the third quarter and finished with three catches for 130 yards and two touchdowns.
With 13:20 left in the third quarter, Tillery broke through the right side of the line and up the right sideline for a 52-yard touchdown that gave Southern a 38-17 lead.
“I was just more concerned about getting to the SWAC Championship again,” Jones said. “We’ve got one of the best offensive lines in the country, ya’ll should be interviewing them instead of me.”
Grambling’s defense entered the Bayou Classic with their biggest strength being their ability to force teams into mistakes on third downs with their pass rush. The Tigers entered the game only allowing opponents to convert 31 percent of their third downs and tallied a SWAC-high 45 sacks on the year.
Southern’s line didn’t allow any sacks in the game as the Jaguars converted on seven of their 15 third-down attempts, and two of Howard’s three touchdown passes came on third-and-long situations.
“(Austin) has a chance to do something that hasn’t been done in a long time, and that’s win a (SWAC) championship as a freshman,” Odums said. “When you look at his numbers, they’re right up there with anybody that is playing well. He doesn’t turn the ball over, he did a great job of throwing the deep ball today, and we did a great job of catching it.”