LORMAN, Miss. — Southern survived September.
It might be fair to add the qualifier “barely” in the wake of the 56-16 thrashing that Alcorn State administered to the Jaguars on Saturday in Spinks-Casem Stadium.
The Braves are one of the best teams in the Southwestern Athletic Conference and may prove to be the best. As such, they were able to expose Southern’s vulnerability.
“It is a loss, it is a big loss and it is one-sided,” running back Lenard Tillery said. “But we’re definitely still growing. Every week we get better at some aspect, and every week we get exposed in some area.”
Alcorn exposed a few things.
Its offensive line is bigger than Southern’s defensive line, and the Braves’ experience and cohesion created opportunities that their one-two running back punch of Anthony Williams II and Darryan Ragsdale was able to take full advantage of.
The Braves’ veteran quarterback, John Gibbs Jr., was able to take advantage of the Jaguars’ youthful secondary, which is having the kind of up-and-down season one would expect from such an inexperienced group.
Alcorn’s defense was able to slow a Southern running game that was missing three of its top running backs, putting Austin Howard in disadvantageous situations and making him look like the true freshman quarterback he is.
The Braves were much the better team, winning by 40 points despite being minus-2 in turnovers.
“We’re struggling right now,” Southern coach Dawson Odums said.
But at the same time, he and his players harped on “getting better” after the game. There’s no question the Jaguars have to get much better than they were Saturday if they’re going to contend for the West Division title. But the larger point was that they believe there’s good reason to think they will get better.
Southern has nine key players who are sidelined and have a reasonable chance of returning, many sooner rather than later. Their absences are notable less as an excuse for a 2-3 record or Saturday’s poor performance than they are as a reason to expect Southern will be better in October and November than it is in the final days of September.
The numerous first- and second-year players who are playing more than the coaching staff intended them to are going through on-the-job training and the inevitable growing pains that go with that. But the expanded playing time should yield accelerated development, further strengthening this team’s belief that better days lie ahead.
“We’re growing every week,” fullback/linebacker Brian McCain said. “We have a young team now because a lot of things have been going on with eligibility and different things. We have some young guys in place of some would-be starters. These guys are playing higher than anyone’s expectations. Each week, we’re going to grow and we’re going to learn.”
In addition to the internal elements that Southern expects to improve, there are external elements that provide some encouragement as well.
Right now, the team in the SWAC that seems closest to Alcorn’s level also resides in the East — Alabama State. Texas Southern, which looks like it might be an emerging contender in the West, was knocked down a peg or two in its 38-3 loss Saturday at Alabama State.
The Jaguars play their first home SWAC game against Arkansas-Pine Bluff on Saturday, only two games remain on opponents’ home fields and Southern will play three straight home games before meeting Grambling in the Bayou Classic to close the regular season.
“We’re going to be measured by what we do going forward,” Odums said. “We’re going to be all right. It never looks that way after a loss, but we’re not the football team that we’re going to be in October.
“There’s a long way to go. I told the players, ‘Let’s close out the month, put it behind us and have a good, fresh start in October.’ ”