Sylvester Nzekwe knew the drill.
This season, without any doubt, the Southern football team has placed a premium on passing. Through the first four weeks, the Jaguars had all but worn out their wide receivers.
But a funny thing happened last week on the way to Itta Bena, Miss., where Southern was to face Mississippi Valley State.
As usual, second-year coach Stump Mitchell was getting weather updates from the team trainer, Rick Hayes. It was windy up there — and in the first quarter, SU was heading straight into that wind.
So when the offense hit the field, Mitchell started calling Nzekwe’s name.
He practically never stopped.
Although the Jaguars didn’t sport a dominant ground game in last week’s win at Valley, they at least sported some kind of ground game.
Over and over, Nzekwe led the way.
He had 86 yards on 30 carries — easily the highest number of rushing attempts for one player in the Mitchell era.
As a team, Southern finished with 126 yards on 41 carries.
“Basically, in the beginning, (Valley) played a little soft,” Nzekwe said. “After a while, they started catching on. They started putting everybody in the box. But my O-line was blocking, and I was just hitting the holes. Simple as that.”
It was an encouraging sign for Southern’s offense, whose running game was virtually invisible when the season began.
“Because of the things that the offensive staff has decided to do, in terms of trying to pound the ball — which is different from what I was doing, I admit — we were able to gain some yardage,” Mitchell said.
The Jaguars (2-3, 2-1 Southwestern Athletic Conference) face Prairie View (3-2, 3-1) in a surprisingly important game at 6 p.m. Saturday in A.W. Mumford Stadium.
With a win, Southern can overtake Prairie View for first place in the Western Division.
The Jaguars still rank last in the SWAC in rushing at 54.0 yards per game, but their ground attack has improved.
Over the past two weeks, they’ve gained 188 yards on 67 carries. It’s an average of 2.8 yards — hardly stellar, but still much better than before.
Over the first three weeks, SU had averaged 1.3 rushing yards per attempt.
The Jaguars’ ground game crept toward respectability when Nzekwe crept into the lineup.
Nzekwe had barely seen the field until the third game of the season. Against Jackson State, he had four catches for 71 yards.
He gained 42 rushing yards the following week against Florida A&M. Then there was last week’s effort at Valley. It was all the more impressive given the state of Southern’s offensive line, which lost three players to leg and ankle injuries.
“He’s the best we have, in my opinion, when you talk about a guy that can run and catch and also do a decent job in blocking,” Mitchell said.
Why, then, did it take so long for Nzekwe to get his shot?
The reason was actually very simple, Mitchell said.
A walk-on from Seattle, he had decided to skip spring practice, and that landed him at the bottom of the depth chart when training camp began, behind veterans Brandon Rice, Dallas Fort, Jerry Joseph and a handful of others.
But Rice suffered a shoulder injury during training camp, and after two weeks, Southern’s ground game hadn’t taken hold.
“He did not get the first opportunity. Other guys got the opportunities because they put in the time,” Mitchell said. “But I did not hold it against Nzekwe. When the opportunity presented itself for him to play, he made the most of it, and right now, he’s our starter.”
Compliments to the Cook
Mitchell praised defensive back D’Mekus Cook this week for the junior’s resilience and hard work — and it’s easy to understand why.
A starter at cornerback last season, Cook lost his job during training camp to freshman LaMarkius Pettaway. Since then, however, Cook has blossomed in his new role as a nickel back.
“I think he could’ve sulked. But he didn’t,” Mitchell said. “He’s accepting coach (Donnie) Henderson’s teaching, and he’s making the most of it. And we’re benefiting, as a defense, from him playing as a nickel or a dime back, as opposed to being a starter.”
Cook has made two of the most spectacular defensive plays this season. Against Jackson State, he made a leaping one-handed interception on the sideline. Last week at Mississippi Valley State, he stopped running back Joseph Hardnett, then ripped the ball away from him and raced the other way for a 58-yard touchdown.
Cook has 17 tackles, four pass deflections and one quarterback hurry.
PV in search of takeaways
In rising from national joke to annual SWAC contender, Prairie View often excelled on defense — specifically, forcing turnovers. From 2006-10, the Panthers had 128 takeaways, and last year, they ranked 10th in the nation with 30 takeaways.
This year hasn’t been as productive. Prairie View has only three takeaways, and its minus-11 turnover margin is the worst in the SWAC.
“I don’t know how many interceptions we’ve dropped, but it’s way too many for my liking,” said coach Heishma Northern, who spent the past six years as defensive coordinator. “It’s just something that comes with having a young ballclub. Sometimes you’re going to get them, and sometimes you won’t. But the more hats we get to the football, the more turnovers we’ll get.”
Southern ranks sixth in the SWAC with a minus-3 turnover margin.
Left guard Zach Brown (ankle) and right tackle Taylon Jones (ankle) have not practiced this week. ... Southern is still awaiting word from the NCAA on the eligibility of linebacker Corey Ray and tight end Javon Jordan, who have not played at all this season. ... Southern will wear Columbia blue jerseys and pants against PVU. ... According to the National Weather Service, Saturday’s forecast calls for sunny skies and a high of 86 degrees, with a low of 64. ... This weekend is “Junior and Senior Roundup on the Bluff,” an opportunity for high school juniors and seniors to get a closer look at SU. To sign up, students can call the SU admissions office at (225) 771-2430.
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