NCAA Football: Southern at TSU

Nov 11, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; Texas Southern Tigers quarterback Elijah Odom (10) is sacked by Southern University Jaguars linebacker Aaron Tiller (94) for a loss in the first half at BBVA Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Thomas B. Shea For the Advocate

Thomas B. Shea

Southern defensive coordinator Trei Oliver was not a happy camper after watching video of his unit’s performance against Alcorn State.

The Jaguars allowed an 458 yards that day — a game coach Dawson Odums readily calls his team’s worst defensive performance of the season. It was a performance that, statistically, was one of Southern’s worst in his tenure.

Of those 458 yards, an astounding 402 came on the ground, with running back De’Lance Turner responsible for 272 of them by himself. Alcorn State converted 50 percent of its third downs and scored 48 points and sent a reeling Southern team back to Baton Rouge with its third straight loss.

Oliver watched the film from the game and fumed.

“I didn’t think we played very hard against Alcorn. I don’t think we played very physical against Alcorn,” Oliver said. “I thought we improved in both of those areas since that game.

That Alcorn game marked a low point for the Southern defense since Oliver took over before the 2016 season. His unit has rebounded nicely since that day.

Through the first four games, Southern was giving up an average of 38 points and 446 yards per game.

In the six games since the Alcorn State loss, the Jaguars are giving up 20.5 points and 300.5 yards per game, highlighted by a season-best game last week against Texas Southern when they limited the Tigers to 184 yards of total offense.

Southern is playing harder and it is playing more physical, as Oliver said, but it is also playing smarter and with more confidence.

“Guys are getting better at what we’re doing,” Odums said. “To me, when you play young guys, you’ve got to stick with them and as the season goes, they’ll get better.

“Guys are understanding the emphasis we put on them to make plays and get off the field, and that’s what has led to the success we have had in this six-game stretch.”

Southern didn’t need to re-invent the wheel, Odums said. He just needed his defense to lock down the fundamental aspects of defending that had been so shaky early in the season.

One of the things that led to those nightmarish numbers against Alcorn State was the poor flow angles Southern defenders were taking to the ball carriers, leaving wide cutback swaths open that Turner frequently exploited.

Add a poor tackling effort to the mix, and Southern was doomed to have a bad day at the office in Lorman, Mississippi.

“You’ve got to play with an attitude,” Odums said. “The No. 1 thing you have to do is tackle ... and when we tackle, our defense plays well, when you miss tackles, it leads to problems. That’s anybody.”

The Jaguars coaching staff adjusted the physicality of practice. In those first four weeks (against four physical, tough opponents), Southern rarely, if ever, practiced in full pads. After the Alcorn State game, the Jaguars were going full-bore on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

They drilled the basics, focusing on proper pursuit angles, and tackling form. They preached the importance of effort; Oliver wanted to see as many of his defenders as possible swarming to the ball on each play in practice.

“If you’re in a one-on-one situation and you miss a tackle, that’s obvious,” Oliver said. “But if there’s guys there and you miss a tackle, nobody really sees it.”

The result of focusing on the small things has been a defense that has taken big strides since that Alcorn State game.

And if they want to keep their season going, the Jaguars will likely need their defense to keep it up.

Grambling ranks as one of the Southwestern Athletic Conference’s most prolific offenses this season.

The Bayou Classic is next.

Follow Luke Johnson on Twitter, @ByLukeJohnson.