A physically spent Southern coach Dawson Odums slumped into his chair after his team snapped a three-game losing streak with a 31-14 win against Fort Valley State.
He let out a breath that, to the listener, could’ve been heavy with either relief or exasperation depending on what he was about to say regarding his senior quarterback, Austin Howard, who watched the second half in a sweat suit from the sidelines with an apparent injury.
Howard had already missed two games with injury. He lost his top receiver, Randall Menard, for the season last week against Alcorn State. The team’s leading rusher, Devon Benn, left the game with an injury in the first quarter Saturday and did not return.
“I might go get some treatment,” Odums said as he slid into his chair. “I might as well go get in line with the rest of them.”
The night had its scares, but it seemed as if Odums and Southern (2-3) dodged any more significant injuries against Fort Valley State (1-3).
Odums said Howard could have returned, that he tweaked his ankle on the field and did not aggravate an injury to his posterior cruciate ligament.
“Austin’s fine,” Odums said.
“I’m straight,” Howard said. “I’m all right.”
The Jaguars are still waiting for word on Benn’s injury, which Odums did not disclose.
In a season where Southern has already been bit hard by injury, Odums is planning on moving forward with this as the status quo until something changes.
“I have reached the conclusion that we’re going to have to will our way through the season,” Odums said. “Whoever is able to play is going to have to play a lot of snaps, and they’ve got to play extremely well.”
Howard and Benn’s replacements turned in solid nights.
After Benn left the game in the first quarter, Southern made senior running back Herb Edwards the offense's focal point.
The fifth-year senior ran for a career-best 141 yards in the winning effort, busting loose for six runs of 10 or more yards against the Wildcats defense.
Edwards opened the season as Southern’s starting running back but had been dealing with his own injury issue, missing the UT-San Antonio game with a hamstring injury.
“It felt great being back on the field with the ball in my hands with my team again,” Edwards said.
Howard left the game midway through the second quarter, when he came up limping after trying to change direction while evading a Fort Valley State rusher.
Southern turned to true freshman John Lampley, who did not see much action in the two games Howard missed but did not leave the field after Howard went down against Fort Valley.
Lampley didn’t have a banner night passing, completing 6 of his 10 passes for 52 yards, but he showed some play-making ability with his legs, gaining 51 yards on six rushing attempts.
“He did what he was coached to do, he went through his reads and made plays tonight,” Howard said.
He put the game out of reach late in the fourth quarter with a 26-yard rushing score.
“I thought he handled himself well in the football game,” Odums said. “He made the right reads. He’s a special talent. I think he’s got some skill. His running ability is above average, and I think he can throw the football.”
Things couldn’t have started much better for Southern, which scored two touchdowns in its first five plays with the ball.
Freshman wide receiver Cameron Mackey took Southern’s third play from scrimmage 62 yards on a reverse, juking a Fort Valley defender near the line of scrimmage and then outrunning the remainder of the Wildcats defense.
After Southern forced a three-and-out defensively on the ensuing possession, senior cornerback Danny Johnson went back for a punt, shed one tackle and weaved through the Fort Valley coverage team for a 68-yard touchdown.
The game was less than three minutes old, and Southern had jumped out to a 14-0 lead.
But things quickly became much more competitive, in part because of a plucky Fort Valley State team and in part because Southern committed too many costly mistakes.
“They were able to hang around and make plays,” Odums said. “… Next thing you know, momentum swings from you to them.”
A 72-yard Wildcats drive ended abruptly when Jamari Clark fumbled as he was trying to vault over the goal line from the Southern 1-yard line and Montavious Gaines recovered.
But Howard’s on-target third-down pass bounced off Dontrell Brown’s hands, forcing Southern to punt from its own end zone, and that came back to hurt.
Lorenzo Smothers hauled in Murphy Nash’s punt at the Southern 42-yard line and made a handful of Jaguars miss as he raced to the end zone.
The teams traded touchdowns to close the first half with Southern leading 21-14.
Fort Valley State’s second score came with an assist from a Howard fumble and a pair of pass interference penalties on Jamar Mitchell that set up a first-and-goal at the 1.
Southern tightened up in the second half, shutting Fort Valley State out in the final 30 minutes. The Wildcats missed one field goal in the third quarter and had another blocked by Demerio Houston in the fourth.
It snapped a three-game losing streak for Southern, which wrapped up its nonconference schedule Saturday. The Jaguars resume Southwestern Athletic Conference play with its Homecoming contest next week against Alabama A&M.
“We’re not happy with the way we played,” Howard said. “It’s just a confidence-booster, let them know that we could win and we’ll build from here.”