The Southern team that will face Texas Southern on Saturday has won five consecutive games and is different than the one that rode home on the bus from Lorman, Mississippi, with three straight losses in late September.
There are some obvious reasons. Unlike on that day against Alcorn State, quarterback Austin Howard is completely healthy and is playing at a high level.
“I think the biggest difference is when we were 1-3, we didn’t have our quarterback,” defensive end Aaron Tiller said. “Now we have a quarterback that’s healthy. He’s rolling, and we follow him.”
The Jaguars also have benefitted from not playing teams the caliber of Southern Miss, UT-San Antonio and, to a degree, Alcorn State.
But there are more subtle reasons, too. Take the last series of the last game as an example.
Southern was holding a 37-31 lead and had an opportunity to run out the clock from deep in Prairie View territory when disaster struck. Herb Edwards, who has played such a large role in the Jaguars’ season revival, coughed the ball up. Prairie View was gifted an opportunity for a game-winning drive with 96 seconds remaining.
The Southern team on the bus that day in September might not have met the challenge the same way the current team did.
“We had a fumble at a crucial point in the game to give the other team a chance to come back,” guard Christian Rodriguez said. “What did the defense do? ‘We’ve got your back.’ They came out, balled out and made sure to close out the game nice.”
Southern got the stop and the win, maintaining its position within striking distance of the Southwestern Athletic Conference West division title.
“We’re stronger as a team, not just on the field but off the field,” defensive back Danny Johnson said. “We kind of felt like a few guys were still separated.”
It started with belief and trust, which truly took shape after the Alcorn State game.
On the heels of three straight losses, coach Dawson Odums applied the IcyHot method: He preached positivity in his interactions with the team while also ramping up the intensity and physicality of practices.
“My biggest thing is when you’re down and when you’re struggling, that’s the best time to be positive and show a little love on your football team,” Odums said. “We did that, and our guys responded.
“We took the pads off (in practice) the first four games because we wanted to get through them healthy, then we went full gear on Tuesdays and Wednesdays from that point on.”
The team leadership also took the reins, staging a players-only meeting.
The purpose of that meeting was to let all players have the floor and get everything off their respective chests. It wasn’t staged so that the seniors did the talking from a position of prominence. Every person who had something to say, no matter who it was directed at, was given the opportunity to do so.
“We just really let each other have it like brothers do,” Tiller said. “… You don’t have time to think about what you say, and you just get raw feelings from people.”
Said Rodriguez: “We were in there and whatever anyone had to say, any things that were unsaid — sometimes you have tension with people — just let it out on the team, let it out as brothers, as men.”
The expectation was set for the remainder of the year.
Specifically, there was only one expectation:
“We all came together and (said) we’re not losing no more,” said tight end Dillon Beard.
Five down, two to go.