MONTGOMERY, Ala. - Suspended two weeks for his role in a postgame brawl, Southern linebacker Jamie Payton was despondent. In losing his cool at the wrong time, he’d prevented himself from doing the one thing he loved most: playing football.
So when Payton returned Saturday in the Cramton Bowl, he played with passion. He tried to get the most out of every snap in a 26-23 upset win against Alabama State.
Though Payton and the Jaguars defense were sloppy in the fourth quarter, they made enough key plays to help Southern win - and for much of the sunny, mild afternoon, Payton was anything but mild. He led the charge, finishing with a team-high 10 tackles to go along with an interception and a 48-yard fumble return.
“I was miserable, being away from my brothers, the guys I’ve been with for the previous eight weeks. It was heartbreaking. So to be back and finally with my brothers and getting in the mix, it felt very good. Very good.”
Payton - a team captain, almost universally recognized as a great leader - also gave the Jaguars a boost between whistles. He was often seen fist-pumping after his teammates made a sack, and pacing the sidelines with other defenders, discussing what they needed to do on their next series.
His enthusiasm rubbed off.
Early in Saturday’s game, Southern was in serious trouble. The Jaguars trailed 7-0 when tailback Sylvester Nzekwe fumbled and ASU recovered at the Southern 1-yard line.
The Hornets lost 5 yards, and Bobby Wenzig’s 23-yard field goal sailed wide right.
Players said afterward that the goal-line stand gave Southern a huge emotional lift.
“Oh, man, it meant a whole lot,” safety Demetric Rogers said. “And you know, if they scored on that goal-line stand, we wouldn’t be on the winning side.”
Payton, the former Dutchtown High standout who played three seasons at NAIA Lambuth University, later gave the Jaguars great field position late in the second quarter, when he scooped up a fumble at midfield and returned it to the ASU 2.
The Jaguars scored on a Manuel Canto field goal to take a 12-7 halftime lead.
“He made big plays,” SU coach Stump Mitchell said of Payton. “We should’ve gotten in (the end zone) down there, and we didn’t. But we got three points, and that was a big, big play for us.”
Despite missing two games because of his role in the Oct. 15 postgame fight at Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Payton still entered the weekend as Southern’s leading tackler.
Two other key defenders, cornerback LaMarkius Pettaway and safety Levi Jackson, returned Saturday from their own suspensions: Pettaway served a two-game penalty; Jackson sat out last week’s loss at Texas Southern.
Jackson finished second on the team with nine tackles, and Pettaway was third with six tackles.
Southern gave up 224 yards in the fourth quarter, and Alabama State rallied from 12 points down to take a 23-19 lead - but the Jaguars held on, in part because SU’s earlier work on defense.
SU forced five turnovers - a season high for Alabama State, which blew a chance to clinch the Eastern Division championship.
Southern, on the other hand, headed home with an upset win.
“Good game,” Payton said. “Feels good to be back.”