With one last chance to win at A.W. Mumford Stadium, a group of seniors on Southern’s football team held an impromptu meeting.
This homecoming game against Alcorn State, they said, was a gift. It was senior night. It was the home finale.
Saturday night, the seniors didn’t want to blow it.
“We gathered up and said, ‘We’re not going to lose our homecoming,’” receiver LaQuinton Evans recalled. “It was up to the players, whether or not we were going to win tonight.”
And win they did.
The Jaguars got a steely performance from their defense, scored three lightning-quick touchdowns and overcame a sloppy second half en route to an easy 30-14 victory over the Braves.
“I’m glad we came out with the victory,” Evans said. “Nobody wants to lose on homecoming and on senior night. So I’m glad. I’m glad.”
Of course, Evans had a big hand in the win.
His 25-yard touchdown reception gave Southern a 20-0 lead late in the first quarter, and he finished with 100 yards on five catches.
It was exactly the kind of feeling Evans had hoped for — and very, very different from the scenario he’d been facing earlier this week.
Evans was among a host of players involved in a postgame brawl after the Jaguars’ last game Oct. 15 at Arkansas-Pine Bluff. Originally on Oct. 20 the Southwestern Athletic Conference ruled that all players, including Evans would serve their suspensions immediately.
Then, the conference on Tuesday agreed to alter its decision, spreading 15 suspensions over three weeks instead of one.
So although seven SU players had to sit out Saturday’s game, Evans and others were able to lace ’em up.
Together, the Jaguars made the most of their reprieve. And they did it quickly, thanks to an offense led by freshman quarterback J.P. Douglas, who threw for 192 yards and two touchdowns in his second college start.
Southern scored on its first three possessions.
“We had the wind at our backs, so we wanted to establish the run, but we also wanted to take some shots at those guys,” second-year coach Stump Mitchell said. “I wish LaQuinton could’ve caught a couple more passes. ... but I thought the offensive line gave John Phillip Douglas the chance to pass the ball with their protection. And I thought he got rid of the ball on time.”
The defense held Alcorn to 219 yards from scrimmage. The Braves’ only two touchdowns came after Southern took a 23-0 halftime lead — and they came on a pair of SU special-teams blunders.
Alcorn got an 85-yard kickoff return from Terrance Lewis, then added another score when Robert Gainwell blocked a punt and returned it 30 yards.
The Jaguars added a third-quarter touchdown from Sylvester Nzekwe, whose two long runs were the highlights of an otherwise inconsistent second half for the SU offense.
Nonetheless, it was an important win for Southern (3-5, 3-3 Southwestern Athletic Conference), which hadn’t seen much in the way of lucky bounces, clutch plays or good fortune lately.
Heading into the weekend, the Jaguars had lost four of their past five games — all of them by fewer than six points — as the season turned South with each agonizing near-miss.
“We had Jackson State here. We had FAMU in Atlanta,” Mitchell said, lamenting some of those close losses. “It was an awesome schedule, and we just didn’t manage the games the way we needed to, in order for Jaguar fans to be patting their backs. Unfortunately, we managed the schedule to where the Jaguar fans want to put bags over their heads.”
Saturday offered a refreshing change against an Alcorn team that, quite frankly, hadn’t experienced much success in Melvin Spears’ first year as coach.
The Braves (2-5, 1-5), considered a dark horse in the Eastern Division race this summer, have struggled with a young defense, and quarterback Brandon Bridge, seemingly a star in the making, vanished in the night (Alcorn confirmed Thursday that Bridge, who lost his starting job to sophomore Darius Smith, had been “dismissed from the team,” though it did not specify why).
Southern, meanwhile, was no stranger to turmoil itself.
“We knew that our backs were against the wall, and everybody was talking, so we had to go out there and get this win,” Douglas said. “All those close (losses) motivated us to finally pull it out.”
Very early, it looked like the Jaguars’ kind of night.
On Southern’s first series, Douglas had to chase down a bad snap. He used his hands to pick up the ball, his feet to dodge a few tacklers, and his head to fake out three more defenders. Thirty-seven yards later, Douglas had a touchdown, and Southern had a 7-0 lead.
Douglas came back with a 60-yard touchdown pass to Mike Berry on the Jaguars’ second series.
He then threw a 25-yard rainbow to Evans, who easily beat his defender and cruised into the end zone.
Southern’s defense, meanwhile, kept holding off the Braves.
Missing key linebackers Jamie Payton and Anthony Balancier and cornerback LaMarkius Pettaway, who were all serving their suspensions, the defense started off by holding Alcorn to three consecutive three-and-outs.
Later, when the Braves went to a no-huddle, run-heavy attack and put together their best drive of the night, the SU defense pulled together when it needed to.
With the help of a key holding penalty, Southern stopped Alcorn on third down, then watched as Arturo Tamayo missed a 31-yard field goal.
“This was the best performance we’ve had since I’ve been here,” said defensive coordinator O’Neill Gilbert, who got a Gatorade bath from his players as the game ended.
That strong performance came late in the season. But just in time for homecoming. And for senior night.
And for a game Southern desperately needed to win.