Minute by minute, time slipped away.
Southern University left tackle Chris Browne paced the visitors sideline on the east side of decrepit Delmar Stadium, all but pleading to the college football gods to give him and his offense a few more chances.
Last weekend, on a breezy night in Houston, the Jaguars fell behind early to Texas Southern, then ultimately fell apart. They failed to get a first down in the fourth quarter, and TSU easily ran out the clock, securing a 29-15 win.
It was possibly the lowest point in a season that’s been laced with hints of unfulfilled promise. Sure, other defeats had been frustrating; four of them were by fewer than six points.
But this one came against the last-place team in the Western Division of the Southwestern Athletic Conference.
After the customary postgame handshake, Browne placed his hands on his hips, looked toward the synthetic turf and walked toward the shabby locker room. He and others started to realize something: They only have two games left.
At 1 p.m. Saturday in Montgomery, Ala., Southern (3-6, 3-5 SWAC) will face what could be its toughest test so far in a game against Alabama State (7-2, 7-1), widely recognized as one of the best teams in black college football.
So, what happens now? Are the Jaguars on the verge of packing it in?
“No. We plan to help our seniors go out strong,” said Browne, now a fourth-year junior. “And we (want to) spoil these two teams’ chance at the SWAC championship.”
At first glance, it looks like a ludicrous goal. But maybe it’s not. Southern has indeed saved some of its best performances for the SWAC’s best teams. Eight weeks ago, after they belly-flopped in a 33-7 loss against Tennessee State, the Jaguars rebounded with their most impressive win of the year, a 21-6 ambush of Alabama A&M.
Since then, Alabama A&M has won seven straight games and settled into the driver’s seat in the Eastern Division race. In fact, the Bulldogs handed Alabama State its only loss in SWAC play.
Southern also suffered close losses to Jackson State (current record: 7-2) as well as Prairie View and Arkansas-Pine Bluff, who are both very much alive in the Western Division race.
This week, the Jaguars also figure to get a big boost on defense, in the form of three players who missed week’s game because of suspensions.
Senior linebacker Jamie Payton, junior safety Levi Jackson and freshman cornerback LaMarkius Pettaway - all punished for their roles in the Oct. 15 postgame brawl at Arkansas-Pine Bluff - will return to face the Hornets, who rank second in the SWAC in scoring offense (26.8 points per game).
The defense will have to play well Saturday. But the Southern offense must also play better - maybe better than it has all season.
Though the Jaguars have their moments - despite flip-flopping quarterbacks J.P. Douglas and Dray Joseph, they’ve averaged 254.4 passing yards per game - they’ve often faltered in crucial moments. Southern has scored only 12 of 23 times in the red zone, and they’ve been outscored 53-19 in the fourth quarter.
The team also has a minus-7 turnover margin, and this week’s opponent, Alabama State, ranks second in the nation with 32 takeaways.
As second-year coach Stump Mitchell put it: “We have to do a better job of managing the game.”
No matter how they slice it, the Jaguars are 5-15 under Mitchell, who has continually acknowledged that coaches have to win if they expect any kind of job security.
Interestingly enough, Mitchell got public words of encouragement from Hornets fifth-year coach Reggie Barlow, whose own program faced scholarship limitations and a postseason ban during the first three years of his tenure.
“I wish it was some magical pill or whatever that would make it happen. But if you look all around the country, I mean, it takes some time to instill what you’re trying to get done. And I’m sure he’ll do it,” Barlow said, referring to Mitchell.
“There’s a lot of great athletes there in the Louisiana area. He has some on his team now, and I imagine he’ll continue to get them there as he continues to coach there.”
This season, Southern has two more chances to win in a season that’s been sprinkled with promise, but also filled with frustration.
As they head down the backstretch, the Jaguars will try to prove they’re capable of standing eye-to-eye with a legitimate title contender in ASU.
And they have to prove they’re not willing to roll over.
“We’ll get ready to play Alabama State, and after that, we’ll get ready for the Bayou Classic (on Nov. 26.) “That’s all we can do,” said safety Demetric Rogers, a senior. “I’m down to two more.”
Time is slipping away.