Dray Joseph believed he was a better quarterback. He felt it.
In the days after Joseph and the Southern football team lost an ugly season opener, Joseph said he focused on his playbook and trusted his instincts.
He also prayed.
Saturday at A.W. Mumford Stadium, hours before the Jaguars began Southwestern Athletic Conference play with a stunning 21-6 victory over Alabama A&M, the sophomore quarterback wrote a biblical verse, Mark 9:23, on one of his taped wrists.
Everything is possible for one who believes.
Saturday night, Joseph believed in himself, and his teammates believed in each other.
It certainly showed.
In a virtuoso performance that stunned almost as many Southern fans as it did the visiting team, the Jaguars ripped apart Alabama A&M’s secondary for 332 passing yards, took a 21-3 lead by halftime and relied on a sturdy second-half defense to seal the win, breathing life into a program that seemed on the brink of disaster.
“I knew we had the talent to be better,” Joseph said. “We just needed to execute.”
Execute he did. So, too, did the rest of the Jaguars (1-1, 1-0), who were coming off a 33-7 loss at Tennessee State that had fans, coaches and players all wondering what went wrong.
“Last week was shocking,” second-year coach Stump Mitchell said after Saturday’s win. “This week wasn’t shocking.”
Of course, not everyone felt the same way.
That blowout, coupled with last season’s 2-9 record, gave Southern a 2-10 overall mark under Mitchell.
On the other hand, Alabama A&M (0-2, 0-1) came into Saturday’s game with plenty of motivation. Just one week earlier, the Bulldogs blew a 17-point first-half lead against Hampton and lost, 21-20.
In other words, based on one week’s results, A&M appeared to be the better team.
Saturday, it wasn’t.
Although the Bulldogs had 340 yards from scrimmage, their offense often stalled once it crossed midfield, thanks in part to heavy pressure from the SU defensive line and a series of hard hits by the Jaguars’ secondary.
A&M also failed to establish the run, finishing with only 60 yards rushing.
It was quite a contrast from last season’s meeting, when the Bulldogs thrashed Southern in a 34-14 win that was not as close as the final score indicated. In that game, the A&M defense routinely crashed through the line of scrimmage, and its offense piled up 455 yards.
Saturday’s game also marked a 180-degree turn from the Jaguars’ opener last week in Nashville, Tenn., when Tennessee State’s running backs barreled through the SU defensive line in a lopsided win - one in which the Jaguars failed to establish the run and got an up-and-down performance from its quarterbacks, who completed only 48 percent of their throws.
That included Joseph, who was only 9-for-18 last week and took a spot on the sideline early in the third quarter, having been pulled in favor of freshman J.P. Douglas.
This time around, Joseph left during the fourth quarter - but not because he was ineffective.
He did most of his damage in an eye-opening first half.
The outburst started early. On the first play from scrimmage, Joseph dropped back, looked left and fired a quick pass to wideout LaQuinton Evans, who slipped one tackle and outraced everyone to the goal line. His 72-yard touchdown gave the Jaguars a 7-0 lead.
Minutes later, on his second pass attempt, Joseph, facing a heavy blitz, looked right and threw a rainbow to wideout Charles Hawkins, who had cleanly beaten cornerback A.J. Clark.
Hawkins caught the pass in stride and sailed into the end zone for a 57-yard score.
Just like that, Southern had a 14-0 lead.
Joseph, and the entire team, had the boost of confidence they needed.
“Tonight, I came out and played more on instinct,” he said. “Last week, I played more like a robot.”
It was the second career 300-yard passing game for Joseph, who started three games last year as a true freshman but overtook Jeremiah McGinty for the No. 1 job during the offseason.
Joseph threw for 394 yards in a 27-20 loss at Alcorn State last fall.
“Now he has a couple 300-yard passing games under his belt,” Mitchell said. “With the receivers that we have, we expect 300 to be the goal every week, to tell you the truth.”
Southern’s performance was far from perfect, however. The Jaguars missed two more potential touchdowns - the first on the final play before halftime, when Joseph missed open wideout Jared Green down the seam, and again in the third quarter, when Green dropped a throw in the end zone.
The defense gave up several long passes to A&M in the second half; Douglas threw a fourth-quarter interception in the end zone; and Southern managed only 26 rushing yards on 22 attempts.
“We weren’t going to fool anybody,” Mitchell said. “We’re going to try to run the ball, just because that’s something we’ve got to try to do. But you better know, you’ve got to stop that pass. That’s the bottom line.”