East: Southern’s big win at Jackson State proves the Jaguars’ goals are well within reach _lowres

Advocate staff photo by HILARY SCHEINUK -- Southern coach Dawson Odums talks to his players after a Jackson State scoring drive Saturday, Oct. 25, 2014, at Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium.

JACKSON, Miss. — Southern coach Dawson Odums was about to board the team bus for the ride back to Baton Rouge on Saturday night.

The Jaguars had just beaten Jackson State 42-28 in a game that wasn’t as competitive as the final score might suggest.

Odums was planning to start breaking down film of that game and begin preparing for the next one against Alabama State on the ride home. But first he allowed himself a moment to reflect on an earlier bus ride and his team’s evolution during the eight weeks from the season opener through its current three-game winning streak.

The season began under bizarre circumstances: Southern delayed its departure from campus for its game at Louisiana-Lafayette on Aug. 30 while university officials evaluated whether numerous key players had proper academic certification to play without fear of later being deemed academically ineligible.

Several key players had to get off the bus and stay behind as the rest of the team headed to Lafayette, arriving at Cajun Field less than an hour before kickoff. “The Star-Spangled Banner” was being performed as the Jaguars walked onto the field to stretch before what became a 45-6 loss.

“The way we started,” Odums said with emphasis Saturday night, “warming up at Lafayette under the national anthem, could you have imagined that this football team would be in the hunt through eight games?”

Southern (5-3) is firmly in the hunt for a second consecutive Southwestern Athletic Conference West Division title with its 4-1 league record.

“It’s a testament to the assistant coaches and the players that are in this program,” Odums said. “They’re pretty good — great character guys and great guys that work together and great guys I love to work with.”

Though the Jaguars have not endured another situation as bizarre as the delayed bus ride, that was far from the end of the uncertainty about player availability. But that too has passed — finally.

Southern still does not have all the players it expected to have when preseason camp began, but it does have all of the players it can expect to have for the last four games of the regular season.

“In the past, everybody wanted to give excuses about how we didn’t have that or we didn’t have this,” running back Lenard Tillery said. “But now that we have everybody back, there are no excuses. We have to play on a very high level every week.”

In beating Jackson State, the Jaguars played at as high of a level as they have all season.

“We’ve got a football team that’s trying to put it together at the right time,” Odums said. “We’re pretty talented, and we’re playing better going down the stretch.”

The coach added that the Jaguars “found an identity” when they overcame a 20-point third-quarter deficit to beat Alabama A&M 35-34 on the road Oct. 11.

“I really thought that football game we were able to find ourselves and will ourselves to victory,” Odums said.

After an open date last week, Southern went into Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium and completed an undefeated October, looking like a team hitting its stride at about the same time it did last season on its march to the SWAC title.

You’re going to start hearing a lot about “a November to remember” in which the Jaguars play three games in A.W. Mumford Stadium and one in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome as they seek a return trip to the SWAC title game in early December.

As Odums and his team sat on idling busses in late August, waiting to begin a season shrouded in uncertainty, no one was envisioning the victorious bus ride home from Jackson that took place Saturday.

But this Southern team has come a long way since August — and a long way since September, too.

Now everything that might have seemed so elusive eight weeks ago is there for the taking.