How often had you seen this before? How often was enough?
Every time the Southern football team had been in this spot before, it flopped.
Often, in previous games, the Jaguars had a lead in the fourth quarter and figured out a way to blow it.
In other games, they had chance after chance to rally, but kept finding creative ways to fail.
Saturday afternoon, before they rallied for a thrilling, 26-23 upset of Alabama State at the Cramton Bowl in Montgomery, Ala., all the familiar traits were there.
Take, for example, Southern’s second-to-last possession.
Holding a two-point lead with 6:45 remaining, the Jaguars only needed to do one of two things: move the ball and run out the game clock, or move the ball and score. Either would’ve secured the kind of hard-earned (and long overdue) win that had evaded SU so many times before.
The Jaguars were in great shape when quarterback J.P. Douglas unleashed a 30-yard throw to LaQuinton Evans, who caught the pass and moved inside the Alabama State 30-yard line. Then the unthinkable happened. Actually, considering the way Southern’s season has unfolded, it was very thinkable.
Evans fumbled. The Hornets recovered at their 27.
And as Evans, the team’s leading receiver, walked toward the visitor’s sideline, he was despondent.
“I was really hoping the defense would bail us out,” Evans said.
The defense didn’t. Not that time, anyway.
Alabama State promptly drove 73 yards to score, leaving a visibly shaken Southern team only 3:07 to respond.
Stump Mitchell had to make his players believe that, for once, they’d actually pull one out.
He did. And they did. Ten plays later, fullback Brian McCain barreled ahead on a 1-yard run with 9 seconds remaining.
It had the ingredients of a summer action movie: The main characters made mistakes and brought adversity upon themselves. The out-of-nowhere plot twists were silly, almost defying belief. Finally, near the climax, spectators were riveted, almost unable to wait for the conclusion.
That last drive started the same way the previous drive started: with a pass to Evans. Betting that ASU would drop back into deep coverage, Mitchell called for Evans to run a short crossing pattern. Sure enough, Evans was open. He gained 18 yards, and the Jaguars were on their way.
“Coach Stump is doing a great job with us,” Evans said. “He’s the one that really made me suck it up after I fumbled. He said, ‘I’m going to come back to you.’ That’s real coaching. He’s showing a lot of confidence in us as players. He’s doing a great job.”
If nothing else, Saturday’s win made it a little easier for Evans to make such a case.
It doesn’t erase the memories of all those blown fourth-quarter leads, all those offensive letdowns, all those worn-out defensive players walking off the field after another valiant-but-failed effort.
But here’s what Saturday’s victory did.
It gave Mitchell a selling point.
Coming off a 2-9 debacle in his first year at SU, the oft-criticized coach needed to show some tangible improvement with his second Southern team — and while the Jaguars often looked better, they rarely had wins to show for it.
Had they finished 3-8, well, that’s not exactly a big step forward.
Saturday’s game, however, guaranteed Mitchell of nothing worse than a 4-7 record. With another victory Nov. 26 in the Bayou Classic — that’ll be a tall order, given Grambling’s five-game winning streak — the Jaguars could make it to 5-6.
No, that’s nothing special. No, it won’t make anyone forget that the golden era of Southern athletics is long gone.
But it does give Mitchell a selling point.
He can truthfully say he beat two of the top teams in the Southwestern Athletic Conference (this season, Southern has dropped Alabama A&M and Alabama State, and one of those teams will play in the conference championship game next month).
He can truthfully say he doubled last year’s win total. He can truthfully say his team should’ve won even more. He can also truthfully say this year’s squad was short on practice time and scholarships, thanks to APR-related penalties levied by the NCAA.
And now he can make a convincing sales pitch: He can tell recruits they could be the missing link, the final puzzle piece, the extra playmaker Southern needs to be a legitimate contender in the Southwestern Athletic Conference again.
Of course, everything could change in two weeks.
If the Jaguars leave New Orleans with a blowout loss to Grambling, fans will spend all offseason wondering if this improvement project is a mirage.
But now, after Saturday’s stunning win, Southern is reinvested. It has a reason to practice hard for the next two weeks, to score another upset — this time in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
“There’s a lot of things involved with the program and our young players,” Evans said. “We’re trying to keep coach Stump here and let him continue. He’s building a program.”
We’ll soon find out what kind of program it is.