ITTA BENA, Miss. — At least once before, they’d been burned on this play. They knew that at some point, they’d see it again.
So in the final minute of Southern’s sloppy-but-important 28-21 victory Saturday at Rice-Totten Stadium, with fans screaming, momentum shifting and Mississippi Valley State facing a fourth-and-9 it had to convert, defensive tackle Dexter James prepared for the most important play. He adjusted his face mask and placed one hand on the grass.
A few yards behind him, linebacker Jamie Payton took his place and stood firm. They prepared for anything, but they both had a sneaking suspicion.
They watched for a screen.
Payton: “As soon as they snapped the ball and let the defensive line go through, I knew it had to be a screen coming from somewhere.”
James: “We had a stunt going on. I found myself come through the line of scrimmage a little easy. Our coaches had been telling us in practice, ‘Stop and look for the ball.’ The running back came across my path.”
James retreated. Payton closed in. With 32 seconds remaining, the two Southern defenders dropped Valley running back Reshon Daniels for a 1-yard loss at the Southern 32-yard line.
The Jaguars took over, took a knee and trotted toward their sideline, arms raised, more than happy to escape Itta Bena with a win.
A pretty win, it was not. But after blowing fourth-quarter leads in back-to-back losses, Southern (2-3, 2-1 Southwestern Athletic Conference) was more than happy to take a victory. Even if it wasn’t pretty.
“It wasn’t (pretty),” second-year coach Stump Mitchell said. “We had some fumbles on special teams. We had some interceptions on offense. And that’s been the reason, I think, why we’ve lost three ballgames.”
Saturday, against Valley (0-5, 0-4) — which has now lost 15 consecutive games under second-year coach Karl Morgan — the Jaguars could have hardly afforded to lose.
“We’re learning from our mistakes,” Mitchell said. “The guys hung in, and we were able to find a way to win.”
They held on, in large part because of their defense, which stopped the Delta Devils on two key fourth downs in the fourth quarter.
They held on after quarterback J.P. Douglas came off the sideline in the second half and led the team to its first fourth-quarter touchdown this season.
Replacing the starter, Dray Joseph, on the first drive of the third quarter, Douglas went the rest of the way, completing 16 of 25 passes for 223 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions.
“It feels good. It feels good to get a victory,” said Douglas, a freshman from Roswell, Ga. “We (had) to control the clock and the pacing of the offense, and especially protect the ball.”
The winning drive covered 94 yards, ending with a 58-yard score by wideout LaQuinton Evans, who ran a short slant route, caught Douglas’ quick pass, broke a tackle and outraced everyone else to the goal line — even after his right shoulder slipped out of its socket (Evans stayed on the ground for several minutes, but eventually returned to action).
A revived rushing game, led by tailback Sylvester Nzekwe, certainly didn’t hurt. Nzekwe had 30 carries for 86 yards, and the team — which averaged 1.3 yards per carry over its first three games — finished the afternoon with a season-high 126 rushing yards.
By holding off the Delta Devils, they matched their win total from last season. Next week, against Prairie View at A.W. Mumford Stadium, they’ll go for their first winning streak of the Mitchell era.
But Saturday’s win did not come easily.
Southern made nine trips into Valley territory, but went scoreless on six of them, thanks to turnovers and two failed fourth-down conversions.
Both teams played under a bright, sunny sky, but had to deal with a fierce north-to-south wind that gusted to 20 mph and sometimes wreaked havoc on the passing game.
Both teams had four turnovers apiece in the first half alone.
Both teams combined for 25 penalties in all — both before a crowd that was small (4,982 fans) but lively at times — especially when Valley tied the score at 21 early in the fourth quarter.
The Devils scored their first two touchdowns with plenty of help from Southern. They tied the score at 7 when cornerback Michael Boykins intercepted Joseph and raced 34 yards for a touchdown.
Joseph rebounded and put Southern ahead 14-7 with a 26-yard pass to Evans.
Valley answered, stripping punt returner Byron Williams and recovering at the SU 9-yard line. The Devils tied it at 14 when quarterback Marvin Pittman easily scored on a 5-yard bootleg.
Joseph answered before halftime, scrambling 16 yards for a touchdown that put the Jaguars ahead, 21-14.
The Devils tied the score early in the fourth quarter, after Pittman broke loose on a 67-yard quarterback keeper to the SU 1-yard line.
Running back Trey Bateaste powered into the end zone on the next play. Until then, Southern’s defense had largely kept Valley in check.
Then, suddenly, the Devils had momentum.
Douglas and Southern responded with their most impressive drive of the day. It included nine plays, 94 yards, three third-down conversions and Evans’ 58-yard score.
James and Payton made sure it was the winning score.
“This (game) was about the extra film work we put in this week, the extra reps and conditioning we put in,” Payton said. “It was just (about) the mind-set, that we had to get out of the losing streak and put one in the win column. It was good.”
Even if it wasn’t pretty.