The game could not have started much better.
Way back on Sept. 3, at LP Field in Nashville, Tenn., the Southern football team stopped Tennessee State on the first possession of their season opener.
Then, when the Jaguars got the ball, they began moving. For a few fleeting moments, they looked sharp. SU quarterback Dray Joseph completed three straight passes, and after a 3-yard run, he dropped back to throw again.
That’s when an unsettling trend began.
Joseph’s tipped pass fell in the hands of Tennessee State’s Joseph Wylie, who returned his interception 59 yards for a touchdown. The Tigers won 33-7.
Fast-forward to the fourth quarter of last week’s game, when Prairie View recovered a fumble with 5:23 remaining, drained the clock and kicked a 19-yard field goal to win 23-20, handing the Jaguars their third loss in the past four weeks.
Turnovers. That, second-year coach Stump Mitchell said, is his No. 1 concern as Southern (2-4, 2-2 Southwestern Athletic Conference) prepares to face Arkansas-Pine Bluff at 6 p.m. Saturday in a matchup of two teams tied for second place in the Western Division.
To Mitchell, the turnover issue outweighs other hot-button topics, such as the much-discussed two-quarterback system, an ineffective second-half offense, or inconsistent special-teams units.
Fixing the turnover problem, Mitchell said, will help fix everything else.
“We can bring the funk offensively,” Mitchell said. “So I don’t worry about comments that some people make. We just cannot afford to turn the game over to our opponents. We have hurt our defense some. Those guys have actually started the game behind, because we’ve thrown an interception that has gone back for a touchdown. So that’s hurt. But I think the guys will come out Saturday with the energy, and (they’ll) be ready to play.”
Mitchell referenced turnovers seven times in a 14-minute question-and-answer session Tuesday, saying that if his team could protect the football just a little better, it might be alone in first place in the Western Division. The Jaguars could’ve overtaken Prairie View with a win last week; instead, they’re tied for second with UAPB, trailing Prairie View by 1.5 games.
Southern ranks sixth in the SWAC with a minus-2 turnover margin, and three first-half interceptions have been returned for touchdowns.
Hush-hush on QBs
As for the hottest of hot-button issues - Mitchell’s two-quarterback system - the coach declined comment on Tuesday.
Asked if he intended to keep the same rotation this week at UAPB, with Joseph starting and J.P. Douglas coming on in relief, Mitchell replied: “We’re going to line up Saturday, and we’re going to play. That’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to line up Saturday, and we’re going to play, and hopefully we’ll come away with a win.”
Douglas led the team to a game-winning touchdown drive Oct. 1 at Mississippi Valley State, but was ineffective last week in a 23-20 home loss to Prairie View, completing only two of eight passes in the third quarter.
Joseph has started every game, completing 54 percent of his passes for 1,140 yards, 10 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
Douglas has played in every game except one - the Jaguars’ 28-24 loss to Jackson State. He has completed 48 percent of his throws for 428 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.
Boyd finished, others out
Mitchell said tackle/tight end Clinton Boyd, who suffered a knee injury during practice last week, underwent arthroscopic surgery Tuesday morning and is likely out for the rest of the season. Boyd, a sophomore from Atlanta, moved from tackle to tight end before the first game of the season. Working exclusively as a blocker, he had no receptions.
Also, defensive end Jeffrey Watkins and defensive tackle Traé Tiller will probably not play Saturday at UAPB.
Both players suffered severely sprained ankles in the second half of last week’s game.
Watkins, a true freshman, started the past three games and had become a valuable pass rusher, with 12 tackles and two sacks. Tiller had five tackles in five games, adding depth to a thin position.
The Jaguars will likely feel their absence against the Golden Lions, who averaged 172.6 rushing yards over their past five games.
The team got a brief visit from Mayor-President Kip Holden during Tuesday’s practice. ... Wide receiver Jordan Bilbo, the team’s fifth-leading receiver with 138 yards on five catches, missed last week’s game with a shoulder injury. Also, freshman Robert Sanchez has moved from linebacker to tight end, adding depth to a thin position. Sanchez did not play against Prairie View.