The last game of Southern’s football season was a lot like the team’s season as a whole.
The Jaguars played well enough to build the biggest lead against Southwestern Athletic Conference West Division champion Grambling when it took a 20-3 second-quarter edge in the Bayou Classic on Saturday.
But, as was the case much of the season, the Jaguars couldn’t sustain it and fell 34-23 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
At times this season, they seemed like strong contenders for a third consecutive West title, beating the six also-rans in the league by an average score of 48-21.
But when it came to the three best teams in the SWAC, Southern was found wanting.
It traded blows with Prairie View for four quarters before falling 47-42.
It bounced back with a victory at Texas Southern but lost to defending SWAC championAlcorn State 48-7.
It followed that with consecutive lopsided victories against Arkansas-Pine Bluff and Alabama A&M and seemed poised to play its best game of the season in the finale against Grambling.
And for the first quarter and a half, the Jaguars played as well as they did all season. Quarterback Austin Howard and the passing game were clicking from the outset, which created opportunities for Lenard Tillery and the running game.
The defense had perhaps its best stretch of the season, containing the most productive offense in the SWAC for more than a quarter.
“We weren’t able to sustain,” coach Dawson Odums said. “You can’t beat a good team if you’re not able to sustain.”
After the Jaguars took their 17-point lead, the Tigers seemed to wake up.
Maybe the newly crowned West champions were distracted during their game preparations by the specter of facing Alcorn State in the SWAC title game next week. Or maybe Southern just outplayed Grambling in the early going.
Regardless, once the Tigers took their play to a higher level, the Jaguars weren’t able to keep up, just as they were unable to keep up with Grambling and Prairie View in the West standings.
Grambling drove to consecutive touchdowns, and suddenly Southern couldn’t run or pass with any consistency.
The Jaguars had lost the momentum but still had a three-point lead at halftime. They had a chance to regain the momentum at the start of the third quarter when they forced a punt after three plays, but a running-into-the-kicker penalty revived the Tigers’ possession.
That led to a touchdown, and Grambling had the third score in a streak of four unanswered touchdowns.
After building that 17-point cushion, Southern was outscored 31-3.
This season, the SWAC separated into two levels: the contenders and the also-rans, not so much the East and West divisions. The Jaguars were contenders, but they were clearly fourth in the quartet.
They lost to the other three contenders and couldn’t sustain their viability as a contender.
The word to remember here is “sustain.”
Odums and his staff over the past three years have returned Southern to the level of perennial contender, but the challenge is to sustain that — and it’s getting more challenging.
In two years, Broderick Fobbs and his staff have put together a remarkable turnaround at Grambling, and the Tigers look like they might hang around awhile.
Willie Simmons and his staff thrust Prairie View into the thick of the West race in their first season.
Jay Hopson and his staff have Alcorn State playing for a second consecutive SWAC title.
If the Jaguars are going to sustain their place as a SWAC contender going forward, they’ll have to do better than they did Saturday — and better than they did in 2015.
Follow Les East on Twitter: @EastAdvocate.