It has been 11 months since a football team from the Southwestern Athletic Conference has beaten Southern.
Five consecutive SWAC opponents have lost to the Jaguars, including Jackson State in the conference title game last December and Prairie View in Southern’s league opener last week.
The last SWAC team to defeat the Jaguars was Alcorn State, which outscored Southern 44-38 in an overtime game in Mumford Stadium.
Now the Jaguars (2-2, 1-0 SWAC) head to Lorman, Mississippi, to face the Braves (3-1, 1-0) in a key interdivisional game that could go a long way toward determining who wins both divisions.
“Nobody on this football team has found a way to beat Alcorn since I’ve been here, so that’s a challenge for us,” said Southern coach Dawson Odums, who was in his first season as defensive coordinator when the Braves beat the Jaguars 20-17 in 2012 in Lorman.
It’s early to be projecting the SWAC title game matchup, but this game does appear to match one of the best in West against one of the best from the East. The Jaguars were picked to repeat as West champs and they began conference play last Saturday with a relatively easy 34-24 victory at Prairie View, which was thought to be one of Southern’s primary challengers.
“It’s always exciting when Southern and Alcorn get together,” Braves coach Jay Hopson said. “It should be the kind of environment any college football player would want to play in. Southern always has an excellent program. We’ll have to be at our best this week.”
Alcorn has been pretty good up to this point, sandwiching a pair of lopsided nonconference wins against Virginia University at Lynchburg (55-7) and Louisiana College (52-10) around a narrow nonconference loss at Southern Miss (26-20). Last week, the Braves began league play by blasting Mississippi Valley State 52-9.
“I think (the Jaguars) understand the magnitude of the game,” Odums said. “Right now, it’s conference time so it’s really a playoff atmosphere for all those teams that are hoping to reach that destination at the end of the season.”
The SWAC statistical rankings suggest the Braves are about as balanced as a team can be. They lead the league in yards, rushing and scoring on both sides of the ball.
“They’re very experienced,” Odums said. “They’re deep, they’re loaded, they’re well coached, they’re disciplined. It’ll be a tough challenge for us.”
In last year’s meeting, the Braves rolled to a 31-14 lead early in the third quarter before the Jaguars made a strong comeback. Southern took a 35-31 lead early in the fourth quarter, Alcorn regained the lead 38-35 and the Jaguars’ Greg Pittman kicked a 38-yard field in the waning seconds to force the extra period.
Arnold Walker scored the game-winner on a 25-yard touchdown run, capping a game in which he had 156 yards and two touchdowns on 28 carries. He has graduated, but quarterback John Gibbs Jr. is back. He ran for 67 yards and a touchdown and passed for 239 yards and two touchdowns in last year’s meeting.
“Gibbs is the decision-maker,” Odums said. “He’s the captain, the guy who makes it work.
“If he’s playing well, they’re going to play well. If he’s not playing well, they’re going to struggle. He’s one of the best in the conference. He’s a seasoned veteran and one of the main reasons they’re being successful so far.”
Another reason Alcorn is having success is that it leads the SWAC with 18 sacks. Southern leads in sacks allowed with one.
“They do a lot of exotic looks, and they bring a lot of pressures but one thing we do pride ourselves on in the offensive line room and the running backs room is sacks,” Southern running back Lenard Tillery said. “We try to not give up many sacks.
“We gave up one last week, and we were disappointed in that, but we’re really looking forward to the things they bring and we really want to limit them to zero sacks.”
Jaguars safety Blake Monroe said he’ll have to keep an eye on Gibbs’ blockers to get a sense of when it’s safe to come up and try to tackle Gibbs and when it’s best to stay back and defend the pass even as he starts to scramble.
“He never takes his eyes off of going downfield,” Monroe said.
Southern knows that beating Alcorn for the first time since 2011 can be a big boost with just two of the remaining seven conference games being on opponents’ home fields.
“It’s definitely motivation not being able to beat them and them beating us in overtime on our own field,” Tillery said. “That’s something that sticks with the guys who played last year so it’s a big competition game, but it’s also a big game just to see where we are as a team.”
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