HOUSTON — If you’re looking for reasons why Southern failed to repeat as Southwestern Athletic Conference on Saturday, you can find plenty.
The Jaguars instinctively will look inwardly first as they assess the 38-24 loss to Alcorn State in the SWAC title game in NRG Stadium.
They’ll cite an inability to run the ball with the consistency that had been the most significant area of improvement this season.
They’ll look at the trickle-down effect of how that subpar running game made things harder for Austin Howard and made him look more like a true freshman quarterback than he had for much of the season.
They’ll bemoan an inability to slow down the run, giving up 230 yards after holding each of their previous three opponents to fewer than 100 yards.
They’ll certainly be haunted by shortcomings that were points of emphasis during practice all last week because they had been shortcomings in a 56-16 loss to the same team 10 weeks earlier. That means bad defense on third down, when the Braves scored three of their touchdowns.
It also means missed opportunities. They had first-and-goal at the 1 and settled for three points in the second quarter. They had first-and-goal at the 1 in the fourth quarter and failed to score when Lenard Tillery lost a fumble. They were stopped on fourth-and-1 at the Alcorn 13 in the fourth quarter.
All in all, they scored 10 points in four red-zone chances after scoring seven points in the same number of red-zone chances the first time.
“We had our chances,” coach Dawson Odums said, repeating what he had said about the first meeting.
The truth is, if not for a trio of big plays on special teams, the score might have looked more like the one in September. The Jaguars twice blocked punts, one resulting in a tying touchdown, the other resulting in one of the missed opportunities as Southern turned the ball over on downs.
Willie Quinn returned a punt 86 yards for a touchdown that brought to life a team that was teetering in the second quarter. Speaking of Quinn, he hobbled off twice but came back both times, finishing with a game-high six catches for 59 yards even though the Jaguars didn’t have their customary balance in the passing game. Mike Jones had two catches, Justin Morgan one (for 2 yards after the outcome had been decided) and Reggie Travis none.
“They made big plays,” Odums said of the Braves, “and we didn’t make enough.”
Alcorn coach Jay Hopson sat at the postgame dais, marveling at the plays made by his junior quarterback — John Gibbs Jr., who set the tone for the game with a 50-yard sprint on an option play that led to a touchdown on the game’s first possession.
Whether he was keeping the ball, making the right read to release it to a running back or passing, Gibbs was nearly flawless. He was “thrown into the fire,” Hopson said, as a freshman two years ago.
Those growing pains yielded the game’s Most Outstanding Offensive Player on Saturday. Odums no doubt envisions a similar maturation from his freshman-thrown-to-the fire. Howard already has a head start on Gibbs, having been named SWAC Freshman of the Year on Friday.
The Jaguars would not have played for the SWAC title if Howard had not played beyond his years for most of the season. With a limited running game and having to play from behind nearly all day, Howard was unable to elevate his team.
But his shortcomings, much like his team’s, had less to do with the Jaguars than the Braves. Alcorn was the most complete team in the SWAC. It showed from September into December.
On this day, just like on a warm and sunnay Saturday afternoon in Lorman, Mississippi, in late September, Alcorn had the better quarterback, the better defense and a greater ability to execute when the most was at stake.
Southern was better this day than it was that day. Alcorn was better both days.
“I told our guys, ‘You get the same 60 minutes,’ ” Odums said. “You’ve got to be ale to handle defeat. It makes you better.
“We had a great season. They played better, and they deserved to win the football game.”
That was the story Saturday, just as it had been Sept. 27.
In fact, it was the story of the 2014 SWAC season.