MONTGOMERY, Ala. — For five straight seasons, Southern and Alabama State played close games that were mostly decided at the end.
All five games were decided by seven or fewer points, and all but one was decided in the final 20 seconds.
But on Saturday night in ASU Stadium, the Jaguars put an end to that trend by putting an early end to the Hornets, though the final score might not reflect how lopsided the game was.
Southern methodically took a 17-point halftime lead, then withstood two touchdowns by ASU in the third quarter and three in the fourth to hold on for a 45-34 win.
The Hornets fought until the end as backup quarterback Daniel Duhart threw three touchdown passes in the final seven-plus minutes, but ASU never got within a single score.
“Is 17-0 a big lead?” Southern coach Dawson Odums said of his halftime edge. “That’s only three scores. When you’re playing against a team in this conference, you have to be able to put teams away. I thought in the first half we missed some opportunities. We’re better than 17 points.”
The Jaguars, 3-2 overall, improved to 3-0 in the Southwestern Athletic Conference heading into their homecoming game against Prairie View next Saturday in Mumford Stadium. The Hornets, who had won their previous two games decisively, fell to 2-4 and 2-3.
Southern outplayed ASU in each phase as the offense had 414 yards and scored on all seven of its red-zone trips, including six touchdown; the defense limited the Hornets to 85 first-half yards, though it got sloppy after the game was blown open and wound up yielding 409; and the special teams chipped in with a fumble recovery that led to a touchdown and a 58-yard kickoff return that led to a score.
Austin Howard led the offense with a career-high 33 completions on 45 attempts for 355 yards and four touchdowns and running for two more scores.
“All that was going through my head was sticking to the game plan,” Howard said, “because I knew it was great game plan that the coaches put together this week.”
Willie Quinn caught a career-high 12 passes for 141 yards, one yard shy of another career high. As often as Quinn was targeted, Howard still managed to find eight other receivers, including tight ends Dillon Beard (four catches, 47 yards, two touchdowns) and Montrell Jones (five catches, 67 yards, TD).
“Everybody got fed,” Beard said, “and at the end of the night, everybody was happy.”
Southern quickly increased its 17-0 halftime lead when it took the second-half kickoff and drove to Howard’s 8-yard scramble for a touchdown.
ASU came to life after the ensuing kickoff and drove to a 14-yard touchdown pass from Ellis Richardson to Jamir Hannah. A two-point conversion made it 24-8.
Quinn returned the next kickoff to the Hornets 40 and, six plays later, Howard threw a 6-yard touchdown pass to Jones to give the Jaguars a 31-8 lead.
“In the second half, we played much better offensively,” Odums said.
Stan Robinson ran 3 yards for a Hornets touchdown before Duhard went to work, but Randall Menard recovered Jones’ fumble in the end zone after a pass reception and Howard threw a 14-yard touchdown to Beard to keep ASU at bay.
“Everybody was getting to the football in the first half,” Southern nose guard Gabe Echols said. “Then we kind of relaxed and got complacent. We were kind of looking up at the scoreboard and saying, ‘We’re up,’ and we just sat back. We weren’t pushing forward and trying to make plays and force turnovers, and they started scoring some points.”
On Southern’s second possession, Howard carved up the ASU secondary. He completed 5 of 7 passes, hitting four receivers and connecting with Beard for a 7-yard touchdown.
On the ensuing kickoff return, Shawan Parks reached the Hornets 17 before Herb Edwards caused a fumble and recovered the ball for the Jaguars. Six plays later, Howard ran 1 yard for a touchdown that gave Southern a 14-0 lead after one quarter. Greg Pittman’s 33-yard field goal increased the lead to 17-0 at halftime.
“Defensively, we shut them out in the first half, and then come out and give up 34 points in the second half,” Odums said. “We can’t pick and choose when we want to play, how we want to play. We have to play the full 60 minutes.
“We did enough to win, but we didn’t play the kind of football we needed to play in order to win these kinds of football games.”
Follow Les East on Twitter: @EastAdvocate.