It looked like a great omen.
Two weeks ago, on the first play from scrimmage, Jackson State quarterback Casey Therriault dropped back to pass. Almost immediately, he was met by a wave of Southern defenders, led by defensive end Demetrius Bentley, who lost his helmet as he and linebacker Jamie Payton took down Therriault for a 10-yard loss.
The defense hasn’t gotten a single sack since then.
Southern is sack-free over the past seven quarters - and as the Jaguars (1-3, 1-1 Southwestern Athletic Conference) prepare to face Mississippi Valley State (0-4, 0-3) at 2 p.m. Saturday, they rank last in the league with six sacks.
“We tried some stunts and some various things,” SU coach Stump Mitchell said, “but the past couple weeks, we’ve played some pretty decent quarterbacks, and we’ve had some big offensive linemen to go against, and our guys are not that big.”
That much is certainly true. In back-to-back losses, the Jaguars faced beefy linemen from JSU (average weight: 316 pounds) and Florida A&M (304 pounds).
The defense has played well as a unit, giving the team a chance to win despite a tendency to stay on the field too long (SU ranks last in the SWAC in opponents’ third-down conversions, and the defense has played 92 more snaps than the offense this season).
“First things first: We’ve got to be able to put more pressure on the quarterback with our front four guys,” defensive coordinator O’Neill Gilbert said.
Southern made lineup changes last week, starting freshman defensive ends Arthur Miley and Jeffrey Watkins for the first time. Both are from Mangham High School, and both are undersized (Miley is 221 pounds, Watkins 240). But they add speed.
“We’re getting more from the two freshmen, in terms of pressure, than we are from the veteran guys, and I think that’s because the freshmen are faster,” Mitchell said. “They have better pass-rush technique thus far.”
The defensive line has made contributions, however.
Southern has four interceptions in its past two games - some of which came after opposing quarterbacks were pressured.
Last week, for instance, Demetric Rogers’ 59-yard interception return came after defensive tackle Dexter James applied pressure on FAMU quarterback Austin Trainor, forcing an errant throw.
Southern also hasn’t blitzed its safeties as much as it did last season, when the team got burned for a conference-high 25 touchdown passes.
“I would’ve thought at this point that we would’ve had a few more sacks,” Gilbert said. “But they do come in bunches. So I’m confident that if our DBs continue to do what they’re doing (and) covering people up, at some point, we’ll put our hands on the quarterback. We just missed some sacks; that’s the only problem. But they’ll come.”
This week’s opponent, Mississippi Valley State, has allowed 17 sacks in four games.
Getting the ball to Evans
Mitchell also said the team - including the quarterbacks, who throw the passes, and the coach, who calls the plays - has to do a better job of getting the ball to star receiver LaQuinton Evans.
Evans had a 41-yard catch on a long first-quarter pass from Dray Joseph last week against FAMU. After that, however, Evans had no more catches. He was targeted on a handful of plays, including Southern’s final pass attempt, which resulted in a game-clinching interception by cornerback Marvin Ross.
“All I do is call the plays. I don’t execute them,” Mitchell said. “It was frustrating, because even when the game got tight, I wanted to get the ball to LaQuinton, because I know he was frustrated. That was all I needed him to be - frustrated, with the ball in his hands. They would’ve been in trouble. But I couldn’t get it to him.”
Jaguars in October
If the Jaguars win Saturday, they’ll be 1-0 in October - a month that hasn’t been kind to them in recent years.
Since 2005, Southern is 7-16 in October games, finishing .500 in only two seasons (2008 and ‘09, when they went 2-2).
Southern has four October games this season: Saturday at Valley; at home against Prairie View on Oct. 8; at Arkansas-Pine Bluff on Oct. 15; and homecoming against Alcorn State on Oct. 29.
SU fans should enjoy the new-and-improved visitors’ side of Rice-Totten Stadium. “It’s spanking brand-new. I think they’ll like it,” coach Karl Morgan said. Valley was forced to renovate the east grandstand last year after an engineer deemed the concrete foundation unsafe. The new grandstand includes 5,000 seats, new restrooms and emergency backup lighting.