Southern has all the pieces.
This is the week that the puzzle has to come together.
The Jaguars passed the halfway point in the Southwestern Athletic Conference season when they beat Texas Southern 40-21 on Saturday in soggy Houston.
They improved to 4-1 in SWAC play and, over the course of those five games, they have established themselves as a contender for a third consecutive West Division title. But each performance — the four victories as well as the defeat — has featured blemishes.
The one constant has been the passing game, which has been one of the most dynamic and efficient in the SWAC. With Austin Howard distributing the ball to a half-dozen or more productive receivers, the Jaguars have consistently moved the ball through the air, the primary reason they have scored at least 40 points in every SWAC game.
The only times in conference play that Southern has had limited success in the passing game have been when it didn’t need to throw much — such as Saturday, when the running game and the defense dominated.
That’s where the puzzle pieces come into play.
Other areas need to perform at a consistently high level, too.
Against TSU, the Jaguars ran for 305 yards, allowed a total of just 92 yards (including minus-2 rushing) and had a season-high eight sacks.
They have run the ball well for the most part — Lenard Tillery was the leading rusher in SWAC play before he went for a career-high 196 yards Saturday — but they haven’t had the running game and the passing game operating at peak efficiency simultaneously for an entire game.
The Jaguars were tops in run defense in SWAC play even before they lowered the Tigers’ season rushing total, primarily because of the sacks.
The pass defense has struggled at times, but it had its best game of the season Saturday.
The special teams, perhaps even more so than either of the other units, have had a feast-or-famine quality much of the season.
Willie Quinn has returned four kickoffs and one punt for touchdowns, and Mike Jones contributed a blocked punt that produced a safety Saturday.
But TSU also blocked one of Greg Pittman’s punts, and that led to a touchdown. Also, in the past two games, the Jaguars have lost three fumbles on special teams.
Get the picture?
Southern has proved capable of being exceptional in each phase. The running of Tillery, the passing of Howard and the dominance of the offensive line form a versatile offense capable of putting up eye-popping numbers on the ground and in the air.
If the defense can duplicate the combination of its pass rush and coverage effort from Saturday with its ongoing ability to stop the run, it can stymie — or at least contain — the explosive offenses remaining on the schedule. That’s Alcorn State and Grambling.
If the special teams can eliminate the breakdowns and leave all the big plays to Quinn, they can play at a high level as well.
So the pieces are there — balance and big-play ability in all three phases — but the goal now is to fit them all together neatly in a 60-minute package.
There’s a sense of urgency to do so because Alcorn State comes to A.W. Mumford Stadium on Saturday. Yes, that Alcorn State — East Division leader, defending SWAC champion, the most balanced team in the conference the past two years and winner of four straight against the Jaguars.
Now would be a good time to snap all the pieces into place.