After a tough opening month, this is the kind of game the Southern football team really needs.
This figures to be an easier week.
This one is a no-brainer.
Or is it?
At 2 p.m. Saturday in Itta Bena, Miss., the Jaguars (1-3, 1-1 Southwestern Athletic Conference) face winless Mississippi Valley State (0-4, 0-3) in Rice-Totten Stadium.
At first glance, the game looks like it’s made to order for the Jaguars, who need a feel-good moment after losing fourth-quarter leads in crushing back-to-back losses against Jackson State and Florida A&M.
But take a closer look. It’s possible this game won’t be the gimme it appears to be.
Yes, the Delta Devils are winless in 14 games under second-year coach Karl Morgan. But they’re still there. They’re still trying.
Take, for example, last week’s game at Prairie View, when the Devils had a halftime lead for the first time in Morgan’s tenure. They even had a lead heading into the fourth quarter - but Prairie View rallied, scoring two touchdowns and a field goal to prevail 43-34.
It was the second straight game in which Valley at least threw a scare into its opponent. On Sept. 17 at Alcorn State, the Devils trailed by three points in the third quarter before they fell apart in a 39-14 loss.
So maybe they’re close to grabbing that elusive first win.
“We’re closer than we were last year. We’re still far away,” Morgan said with a laugh.
“We haven’t gotten there yet. But I think there’s kind of a path that one goes through in order to get to the winning side of things. I think you lose big. Then you lose close. Then you win close. Then you win big. When you look at programs that turn the thing around, that’s the kind of pattern they go through.”
The team has certainly been through a lot since Morgan first arrived on campus in early 2010.
A native of Houma who attended Vandebilt Catholic and played college football at UCLA, Morgan was a Southern assistant in 1995, sharing an office with Terrence Graves - who is now assistant head coach and linebackers coach at Valley.
Morgan came to Itta Bena, Miss., after a five-year stint as defensive coordinator at North Alabama, a Division II powerhouse.
Almost as soon as Morgan got to Valley, the rough news started pouring in.
That offseason, engineers deemed Rice-Totten Stadium unsafe for fans because of problems with the stadium’s concrete foundation. So every time Valley had a “home game,” it headed 45 miles west to Weston High School in Greenville, Miss., where it typically played before crowds of about 3,000.
Last year, Valley’s athletic department had a $3.3 million budget, whereas rival Jackson State had a $6.8 million budget, and Southern’s budget was about $6.3 million.
Though the Devils played in a few tight games, they finished 0-10.
The hits kept coming. During spring practice, starting quarterback Oliver Hughes and defensive lineman Ronald Byrd, a South Carolina transfer, both suffered knee injuries. They’re out for the year.
But the Devils are still there. They’re still trying.
Last week’s loss is a prime example.
“We have improved since last year. I think we’re a better team,” Graves said.
“We still have some improvement to do. We tell the kids that it’s just like building a house. You don’t build from the roof down; you build it from the foundation up. This year’s recruiting class was very good, so the foundation is laid. We’re getting better.”
Count one Stump Mitchell among those who see improvement in Valley.
“I think coach Morgan definitely has that team playing pretty good. ... They scored 34 points on the road. So offensively, they’re playing pretty good,” Mitchell, the Southern coach, noted. “Defensively, unfortunately, they gave up some (big) plays. But in all the games they’ve played thus far, they’ve had some turnovers that have cost them a game or two.”
Lest anyone forget, last year’s meeting between Southern and Valley was closer than the final score. Heading into the fourth quarter, the Devils were within four points, and they forced SU into a third-and-23. They were about to get the ball back ... until quarterback Dray Joseph threw a sideline pass to tight end Rashaun Allen, who stiff-armed a defender and broke free for a back-breaking 73-yard touchdown.
The Jaguars added another late score and won 38-20.
This time, they meet in a newly renovated Rice-Totten Stadium, with a new grandstand and amenities on the east side, with more improvements to come.
Morgan is trying to do the same with his team.
“All in all, I think we’re making strides,” he said. “That elusive first win is still out there, and I think, once we get it, it’ll be a lot easier for everybody.”