LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — On a day the Southern defense allowed too many points for comfort against Arkansas-Pine Bluff, senior quarterback Austin Howard turned in a performance as crisp as the autumn weather Saturday.
Howard matched his career high with five touchdown passes, tying Dray Joseph’s school record with 73, and leading Southern to a wild 47-40 win Saturday at War Memorial Stadium.
“We needed him to play well tonight,” Jaguars coach Dawson Odums said.
It was the best performance of the season for the senior, who missed two games with a knee injury in September and dealt with rust and limited mobility for several weeks after that.
Howard finished the game 22 of 32 with 245 yards and his five touchdowns. Four of those touchdowns came in the first half, when he was especially sharp.
“He had full command of what we were trying to do, and I was pleased with that,” Odums said.
And Southern (5-3, 3-1 Southwestern Athletic Conference) needed that performance Saturday, as the struggling Golden Lions (2-6, 1-3) were determined not to be pushovers.
Pine Bluff outscored Southern 26-13 in the second half, making things interesting early in the fourth quarter, then again late after it looked like Southern had established control.
Quarterback Brandon Duncan, who entered the game late in the first half for injured starter LaEarl Patterson, threw a 10-yard touchdown pass and then ran in a 2-point conversion to make it an eight-point deficit with 11:22 remaining in the game.
"He came in and he gave us a spark," Pine Bluff coach Monte Coleman said.
Southern responded immediately. Howard found Dillon Beard for a 24-yard catch-and-run that brought the Jaguars near midfield, and Devon Benn pushed Southern's lead to a comfortable-feeling 15-point margin once more with a 46-yard touchdown run through the heart of the Pine Bluff defense.
It was Benn’s first game back since Sept. 30, when he suffered a knee injury against Fort Valley State. He finished the game with 13 carries for 80 yards.
Despite Southern defensive back Demerio Houston's best efforts, Pine Bluff wasn't done.
The Golden Lions had some fourth quarter setbacks courtesy of Houston, who made a tackle for loss on a fourth down and, later, a deflection that Montavius Gaines intercepted for Southern's fourth forced turnover of the day.
“He’s played really well all year,” Odums said of Houston. “Players got to step up when the game is on the line, and you get a chance to be one of those players when you make plays.
“He’s just playing really, really good football. He stepped up and made plays when they needed to be made. They were big because they changed drives, took possession away from them and allowed us to have possession.”
But UAPB still had life, with partial help from a defense that stiffened late in the fourth quarter, forcing three-and-outs on Southern's last three possessions.
Southern’s Taylor Merritt shanked a 3-yard punt with 90 seconds remaining, giving Pine Bluff the ball at the SU 28. Five plays later, Duncan found Jeremy Brown for a 10-yard touchdown with 13 seconds to go. The Golden Lions once again were successful on a 2-point conversion, making it a seven-point game.
But Danny Johnson recovered the onside kick for Southern, setting up a game-winning kneel-down.
"This game could’ve easily went the other way," Odums said. "They played lights out. Especially on the road, you’ve got to play with a lot more enthusiasm, passion and energy, and we didn’t do that in the second half."
It was a strange game for Southern. At times, Southern dominated Pine Bluff on both sides of the ball. At other points, Southern's defense looked incapable of stopping what had been a middle-of-the-pack UAPB offense. The sum of this performance was a win that was tighter than expected.
Oddly enough, Pine Bluff jumped out to a quick lead on the game’s opening drive by capitalizing on the rare failings of Southern’s best defensive players.
Aaron Tiller breezed around the UAPB left tackle on the first play from scrimmage and looked to have a clean shot at Patterson’s blindside — but he missed the sack, leaving a window for Patterson to scoot around the end for 22 yards.
It was Johnson’s turn next. Teams have largely shied away from Southern’s top cover corner, but the Golden Lions went right at him — something Coleman said was not intentional.
Johnson allowed Tyrin Ralph to make a leaping catch in man coverage on a third and 4, then three plays later allowed Paris Mack to get behind him for a 33-yard score on third and 3 that capped a seven-play, 88-yard drive.
Southern's defensive stalwarts quickly recovered from that odd first drive, but the results were the same on Pine Bluff's second drive, which covered 80 yards in 10 plays.
But the Southern defense momentarily stabilized, and Howard took over.
The senior quarterback answered Pine Bluff’s second touchdown by hitting freshman Jamar Washington in stride for a 63-yard touchdown pass. Three of the Jaguars' next four drives ended with a Howard pass in the arms of a Southern receiver.
Tight end Dillon Beard caught two of them, finishing the night with 4 catches for 53 yards and the two touchdowns.
Southern will host Prairie View next week for its final game at A.W. Mumford Stadium this season.