If only the Southern football team had found a way to move the ball in the second half Saturday night, the Jaguars could have rallied to drop Prairie View and move into first place in their division.
If only the Southern offense had found a way to shut out Jackson State in the fourth quarter Sept. 17, the Jaguars would have defeated those hated Tigers at home, and maybe changed the course of both teams’ seasons.
If only the Southern football team hadn’t collapsed in the second half against Florida A&M, the Jaguars would have left Atlanta with the most important victory in Stump Mitchell’s time as coach. And instead of being 2-4 overall and 2-2 in conference play, they should have been 4-2 and 3-1 by now. Maybe even 5-1 and 4-0.
Could have, would have, should have.
At some point, Southern has to close out a game. At some point, Southern has to play well from the coin flip to the postgame handshake. At some point, the offense has to produce — not some of the time, but all the time.
Yes, there’s plenty of encouraging news on The Bluff these days. Instead of getting carved to pieces, as they did for much of last season, the Jaguars have lost three times by five, four and three points. Instead of giving up a parade of big plays, the Southern defense is sound and strong. It has earned the right to be frustrated by an offense that hasn’t always held its end of the bargain.
Yes, the Jaguars are close to becoming contenders in the Southwestern Athletic Conference.
“It’s devastating. It’s devastating to lose so close,” left tackle Chris Browne said. “We’re making so many strides from last season, and it’s harder to lose like this than to get blown away, honestly.”
But lately, the scene at Southern is reminiscent of a Jim Mora sound bite from 1987, one that came moments after his Saints lost a 24-22 thriller to the mighty San Francisco 49ers.
Obviously frustrated and agitated, Mora let loose.
“ ‘Could have, would have, should have’ is the difference in what I’m talking about,” Mora said. “The good teams don’t come in and say ‘could have.’ They get it done. It’s that simple,” he said. “I’m tired of saying ‘could have, should have, would have.’ That’s why we ain’t good enough yet. Because we’re saying ‘could have,’ and they ain’t.”
Southern’s latest “could have” moment arose Saturday, after a promising first half against Prairie View. Though the Jaguars trailed by one point at halftime, quarterback Dray Joseph had led the offense on its most impressive drive in the two-year Mitchell era — a 15-play, 98-yard possession that included hard running, clutch third- and fourth-down conversions and a gorgeous touchdown pass to LaQuinton Evans.
With a hot hand, Joseph earned the right to stay in the huddle, at least for the opening possession of the third quarter.
Instead, Mitchell inserted freshman J.P. Douglas.
Give the man credit for keeping his word. Mitchell has said all along he wants Douglas to play a few series each week. Except for that JSU loss, he has.
Before we delve much further, let’s remember a few very important facts: Without Douglas’ clutch play and strong arm, Southern probably would have lost its previous game at Mississippi Valley State (the Jaguars won after Douglas engineered a fourth-quarter touchdown drive that put SU ahead for good, 28-21).
Coversely, without Joseph’s on-the-money passes, the Jaguars would have lost Mitchell’s debut game against Delaware State last year — and, for that matter, two other games, against Valley last season and Alabama A&M this season.
At any rate, Douglas had an off night against Prairie View, and the offense disappeared in the third period. All the life vanished from A.W. Mumford Stadium, and by the time Joseph returned in the fourth quarter, the offense was cold.
“They’ve just got to match the defensive intensity. That’s about all I can say,” said linebacker Anthony Balancier, whose 38-yard interception return tied the score at 20 late in the third quarter.
“We go against those guys every day at practice, so they should be able to match our intensity during the game. I don’t know what’s the problem, whether it’s the play-calling or the players, but we’ve got to do something about this. We’re losing too many close games.”
Though their record doesn’t reflect it, the Jaguars are a group of young, mentally tough players who, as Mitchell often says, “work extremely hard.”
But at some point, fortitude starts to dissolve. All these coulda-woulda-shouldas have an effect on even the heartiest souls. And Southern might be near that point.
The Jaguars visit Arkansas-Pine Bluff this week. With another close loss, they’ll be in danger of tuning out, cashing in and sleepwalking through the remainder of the season.
For Southern, the only cure is to start strong, stay strong and beat a quality opponent in the fourth quarter. For Southern, there’s no other way.
For Southern, there are no more excuses.