There were signs the Southern University offense is beginning to find its comfort zone during Saturday night’s 23-20 loss to Southwestern Athletic Conference rival Prairie View. Unfortunately for Southern, most of those signs disappeared in the second half when it could put up only a lone defensive score.
“I guess we’re learning that it takes 60 minutes to win the game,” offensive tackle Chris Browne said. “You have to do your job the whole game. You can’t stop.”
Southern ran 41 plays and gained 158 yards in the first half, but managed only 99 in the second half. The overall effort came up just short and squandered a defensive effort that was good enough to impress Jaguars coach Stump Mitchell.
“We have to eliminate turnovers,” Mitchell said of the Jaguars, who had two costly turnovers. “Our defense really gave a stellar performance. No doubt, they played well enough for us to win.”
Junior running back Sylvester Nzekwe sparked the offense with 108 yards rushing and helped give Southern a controlling presence in the first half. It was Southern’s first 100-yard rushing effort since quarterback Bryant Lee topped the century mark against Texas Southern in the last game from 2009. The last SU running back to gain 100 yards was Gary Hollimon, who carried six times for 115 yards against Division II Fort Valley State in 2009.
The Southern offense produced two long methodical scoring drives in the first half. Southern’s newfound confidence in running was key as the Jaguars held the ball nine minutes longer than Prairie View in the first half.
Southern drove 61 yards in 15 plays on its first possession to take a 7-0 lead. The Jaguars also used up 7 minutes, 14 seconds of clock time thanks to its ability to run. Nzekwe carried seven times on the drive for 23 yards before Dray Joseph connected with Michael Berry for a 13-yard score.
Southern fell behind 14-7 in the second quarter but rallied to 14-13 thanks to a 17-play, 98-yard drive that ate up 8:18. Nzekwe carried seven times for 35 yards before Joseph found LaQuinton Evans in the left corner of the end zone.
“We were balancing the run and short pass,” Nzekwe said. “In the second half, they caught on to the run. When we brought in two tight ends, our basic run formation, they adjusted by running a twist.”
Mitchell, as he said he would do earlier in the week, inserted J.P. Douglas at quarterback to start the third quarter. The move failed to produce points, although Douglas directed the Jaguars to a first down at the Prairie View 26 on their second series of the quarter.
This time, the Prairie View pass rush put the heat on, forcing an incompletion on second down, and sacking Douglas on third.
Another sack stopped Southern on its next possession, and Joseph eventually returned for the fourth quarter.
Nzekwe, who ran for 71 first-half yards, gained just 37 more as Southern managed only a defensive touchdown after the break.
“They adjusted to the run some,” Mitchell said. “They brought all the linebackers up. They forced us to pass, but I didn’t want to get away from the run because our defense was playing so well.”
In the end, Southern was left with a bitter taste after playing well enough to win but finding no rewards.
“It’s devastating, but it’s teaching us we have to do a better job,” Browne said. “It hurts to come so close and lose, because we’re making strides, and doing so many things better than last season.”