On a given afternoon at Southern University, you’ll see Sylvester Nzekwe before you hear him.
He is, by nature, reserved and polite. He wears glasses to class. And for him, “yes” and “no” often qualify as long-winded statements.
But late Saturday night, as Nzekwe walked off the field at A.W. Mumford Stadium after the Jaguars’ 30-14 victory against Alcorn Sate, he wore the kind of smile that isn’t sold in stores.
And he had a little something to say.
“We’ve usually been losing by small margins,” Nzekwe said. “So this feels good.”
Indeed, it did.
In breaking a three-game losing streak, Southern was far from perfect.
The Jaguars took an early 20-0 lead, but fell asleep in the second and third quarters, a trait they’ve shown during a season that’s been littered with agonizing defeats (four of their five losses came by fewer than six points).
Both teams were sloppy in the second half. Southern committed two turnovers, and the special teams were a miss, giving up touchdowns on a kickoff return and a blocked punt.
And by the way, penalties were a problem again. The Jaguars committed a season-high 14 of them.
Still, it was a victory.
And the Jaguars badly needed a victory. After all, this second season under coach Stump Mitchell has come with an extra-large serving of turmoil.
“It’s going to help coach out,” senior receiver LaQuinton Evans said. “He’s building a good program.”
By now, everyone has heard about the Jaguars’ substandard APR score, which led to a ban from the NCAA playoffs and the Southwestern Athletic Conference Championship Game.
By now, everyone has heard about the team’s forced reductions in practice time and scholarships.
And by now, certainly, everyone has heard about the postgame fight that erupted Oct. 15 at Arkansas-Pine Bluff, which led to 15 player suspensions from Southern alone (another 25 from UAPB) spread over a three-week period.
Saturday’s game was homecoming, a day after the school declared exigency. It was also Southern’s home finale. It was against an Alcorn team that hadn’t enjoyed much success in coach Melvin Spears’ first season.
Had the Jaguars lost, they might’ve been in danger of rolling over and calling it a year. They might’ve been in serious danger of finishing 2-9 for the second straight season.
Now, Southern has a new goal: Winning its final three games and finishing 6-5.
Mitchell certainly seems to think his team is good enough to do it.
“I feel sorry for these seniors, because this team was good enough to be black college national champions,” Mitchell said Saturday.
OK, so maybe that’s taking it a little too far.
Mitchell has always been a dreamer. He believes that through hard work, players (and perhaps coaches) can rise above almost any shortcoming.
But if you take a long look, you’ll see what he means. You’ll see that Southern at least had the chance to be much better than its 3-5 overall record.
Mitchell’s team roughed up Alabama A&M, a team that now controls its own fate in the Eastern Division race.
Mitchell’s team only lost to Jackson State after blowing a handful of chances to put the Tigers away. And by the way, Jackson State is virtually guaranteed to jump to No. 1 in most black college football polls this week.
Mitchell’s team is within one or two plays of being alone in first place in the Western Division. As it stands, Southern is locked in a three-way tie for second place, a half-game behind Prairie View.
Best team in black college football? No.
Are the Jaguars much better than they were last season? Yes. They can only blame themselves for being, say, 5-3 instead of 3-5 right now. But they are better.
Now, they have a new goal. As senior center Lee Almanza said late Saturday night, the goal is to win these final three games and finish 6-5.
That, of course, would be a far cry from last year’s 2-9 debacle.
That would be a sign that perhaps Mitchell’s program — set back by practice and scholarship limitations, set back at times by a stunning lack of discipline, set back by other SWAC programs on the rise — is indeed on the right track.
The 6-5 goal is still very lofty, as silly as that sounds.
But right now, with three games left, it is at least on the table.
And it’s much better than dwelling on 2-9.