For the first time in three weeks, at the end of a grueling college football game, smiles were in heavy supply on the Southern sideline.

Saturday afternoon in Itta Bena, Miss., after a tougher-than-anticipated 28-21 win at Mississippi Valley State, players traded handshakes and laughs. They chatted with a small, hearty cluster of fans who made the trip from Baton Rouge. They hugged family members.

This felt good. Far from great, but good enough.

Having blown so many chances to pull away from the Delta Devils, the Jaguars lost all momentum. But they came up with a game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter, and they got a solid defensive stop when they absolutely needed it.

Southern’s two-game losing streak was over, and the team headed home, looking forward to this week’s game against Prairie View at A.W. Mumford Stadium.

But what, exactly, did Saturday’s victory mean?

Was it a sign that Southern, which blew fourth-quarter leads in back-to-back games, suddenly learned how to finish a game?

Or was it a sign that Southern still has a long, long way to go?

The truth is, it was both.

The truth is, Southern has to be pleased that it survived an ugly game and escaped with a win.

The truth is, Southern deserves some credit for finding a way to win when the other team had all the momentum in the second half.

There’s another truth, however.

The truth is, if Southern wants to win a few more games this season, it will have to play better. Much better.

Take it from none other than receiver LaQuinton Evans, whose fourth-quarter touchdown proved to be the winning score.

“We only hurt ourselves. We let people in games that shouldn’t be in games,” Evans said. “We’re really playing against ourselves. That’s how I feel. We turn the ball over. We have beaucoup penalties.”

On all accounts, he’s right on the money.

Asked if he thought Saturday’s game was clean, second-year coach Stump Mitchell stated the obvious. He was not in denial.

“No, it wasn’t,” he said.

Indeed. It was sloppier than an endless plate of barbecue ribs, and not as enjoyable.

Southern had four turnovers in the first half alone.

Southern was dropped for losses on three fourth-down attempts.

Southern committed 12 penalties; many of them senseless.

Southern had — count ’em! — nine possessions in Valley territory, and on six of them, the Jaguars scored no points.

In other words, they gave away chance after chance to pull away from a seemingly inferior team.

The parade of mistakes were only part of a frustrating pattern that started Sept. 10 against Alabama A&M, when the Jaguars raced to a 21-3 halftime lead, then tiptoed through the second half and won anyway 21-6.

Southern followed that uneven effort by collapsing in the fourth quarter during back-to-back losses against Jackson State and Florida A&M. Without much doubt, SU should have won at least one of those games, if not both.

On the other hand, Southern fans do indeed have reasons to grin.

If, before the season, someone had guaranteed them that SU would be a half-game out of first place in the Western Division right now, said fans might have been compelled to turn cartwheels all the way to Port Allen.

But it’s true. The Jaguars can leapfrog the West leader, Prairie View, with a win this week.

If, before the season, someone had told SU fans their team missed out on a 4-1 start by only a handful of plays, they would’ve wondered if they’d entered some sort of alternate universe.

But it’s true. The Jaguars are 2-3 instead of 4-1 right now, and for that, they only have themselves to blame.

Also, keep in mind that although Mississippi Valley is not exactly a Southwestern Athletic Conference heavyweight — the undermanned Delta Devils are no 0-15 under coach Karl Morgan — Itta Bena is a strange place. Except for the high-flying Totten-to-Rice era in the mid-’80s, the Devils have rarely contended for much of anything, other than the loudest uniforms in the league.

Still, teams have a habit of strolling to Valley without the proper mindset, then leaving with an ugly, embarrassing loss.

Look no further than Southern, which, in 2005, opened its hurricane-marred schedule with a road game in Itta Bena. The Jaguars lost 31-28 and finished 4-5 that season.

So take Saturday’s win for what it is. SU couldn’t afford to lose, and in the end, the team did not. The Jaguars were sloppy. But they had their moments, too.

“We’re learning from our mistakes. The guys hung in, and we were able to find a way to win,” Mitchell said. “They were not going to lose today, and I hope they bring that same determination with us next week at home.”

They will certainly need it.

Along with a better performance.