Two weeks ago, as his team prepared to host winless Mississippi Valley State, a team that hasn’t won in nearly two years, Alabama A&M coach Anthony Jones issued a warning.
Echoing statements many of his colleagues had already made this fall, Jones said his Bulldogs couldn’t afford to treat the Valley game as a guaranteed win. That, he said, is asking for trouble.
“There aren’t any easy teams in our conference,” Jones said. “Sooner or later, coach (Karl) Morgan’s going to get that first win. We just hope it’s not against us.”
Jones and A&M were fortunate; on Oct. 8, they took a big early lead and cruised to a 37-14 win.
Jackson State, on the other hand, almost learned a hard lesson last week.
The key word, of course, being “almost.”
On a lovely fall afternoon in Itta Bena, Miss., the Tigers were down three points at halftime and again trailed by three points in the third quarter.
In the end, JSU rallied to take the lead and held on for a 17-16 win.
For the Tigers, it was, if anything, a relief.
“Our guys, we didn’t really come to play as expected,” defensive coordinator Darrin Hayes said. “You can’t take anybody for granted in this league.”
As for Valley ...
Another loss. A heartbreaking loss. The 16th consecutive loss since Morgan took over last season.
“I think ... (the players) felt good about the effort,” Morgan said. “Again, the bottom line was, we didn’t win the game. We didn’t win the game. We’re still looking for that elusive first victory.”
Can’t the guy catch a break? Did he lose his rabbit’s foot? Forget to pick a four-leaf clover?
And for that matter, which is tougher on the soul: Getting blown away, or losing a nip-and-tuck thriller that was there for the taking?
Morgan, the Houma native and former Southern assistant coach, will take the latter.
“I think the glass is half-full,” he said. “You always want to win; make no mistake about that. But it’s better to be close. I know people say ?horseshoes and hand grenades,’ and all that kind of stuff. But you’ve got to get close in order to win.”
And as Morgan can remember (or, perhaps, has tried to forget), last season at Valley was often a case study in how to lose big.
During his first 10 games at Itta Bena, the Devils were outscored by an average of 26.0 points.
This season, Valley has at least given some teams a healthy scare.
Against Prairie View, the Devils had a one-point lead after three quarters before falling 43-34.
Against Southern, they were tied in the fourth quarter until the Jaguars scored on a long touchdown by receiver LaQuinton Evans.
Then there was last week.
As Morgan noted, Valley certainly could’ve won. Trailing 17-13 in the fourth quarter, the Devils had a first-and-goal at the 2 but failed to reach the end zone. They settled for a field goal - and later, when JSU took over with 6:05 remaining, the Tigers successfully ran out the clock.
One other thing: After their first touchdown, the Devils missed an extra point. They lost by one.
On the bright side, it was a much better game than last season, when JSU won in a 43-7 laugher.
“At least this year, we had a chance to win, and I think that’s happened more this year than last year,” Morgan said. “So that’s positive. And when you’re in a situation where you’re trying to turn a team around, you’ve got to accentuate all the positives.”
And after last week, Jackson State is a believer.
“It’s just a matter of time before wins start coming in bunches up there,” Hayes said.