The tension built. The fans screamed. The bands roared. A stunning scene was unfolding inside the Georgia Dome, where 59,373 people watched Florida A&M scream back to life against Southern, erasing a 16-point second-half deficit en route to a thrilling 38-33 win.
As the Rattlers claimed the lead in the fourth quarter, the building sounded like a low-flying jet, if jets ate hot dogs and took verbal potshots at coaches.
Chaos reigned on the Southern sideline. Where was wide receiver LaQuinton Evans? The senior wideout, Southern’s most explosive player, stood there with a disgusted look on his face. He moped. He sulked. Evans had made one first-quarter catch, and since then, he’d been a nonfactor. He was upset about the shape of the game, the play-calling ... something. Everything.
“I got really frustrated,” he said.
Minutes later, on Southern’s final play from scrimmage, Evans got open. SU quarterback Dray Joseph fired a pass his way. FAMU cornerback Marvin Ross picked it off. The meltdown was complete.
Moments later, Evans’ mother had his ear.
“Keep working,” Brenda Thomas told her son. “It’ll come to you.”
Fast-forward one week later, to the fourth quarter the Jaguars’ game at Mississippi Valley State. Evans had already scored one touchdown, on a 26-yard rifle-powered throw from Joseph.
Now the score was tied, and Valley had all the momentum, and the Jaguars sorely needed a big play. Backup quarterback J.P. Douglas hit Evans on a simple slant pattern, and Southern’s most explosive player did the rest. He shucked a tackler, broke free and sailed into the end zone for a 58-yard score - even after his shoulder popped out of its socket.
That was the LaQuinton Evans teammates had come to know. That was the kind of play Southern’s coaches expected from him.
“He broke a lot of plays like that for us. He won a lot of games like that for us,” said Donald Mayweather, Evans’ coach at Mansfield High School. “Quint could always catch the ball. What he’s showing right now, breaking tackles and making plays, that’s something he’s always been very good at.”
Southern has to hope that pattern continues.
“We need to get him the ball more,” second-year coach Stump Mitchell said. “We need to design some plays where they have to stop LaQuinton, and if they don’t stop him, then let him do what he does. If they do, we have to get a secondary guy that they can go to.”
At 6 p.m. Saturday, the Jaguars (2-3, 2-1 Southwestern Athletic Conference) host Prairie View (3-2, 3-1) in a game that has suddenly taken on great importance. With a win, Southern can overtake the Panthers and climb into first place in the Western Division.
It looks like a shootout in the making. SU has scored 85 points in its past three games - and although the young, mistake-prone Prairie View defense has given up an average of 38.0 points this season, the Panthers have won three of their past four games.
One other thing: PV, the former laughingstock of college football, has won four of its past five meetings against Southern, including three in a row.
“It’s my senior year, and I’ve never beaten Prairie View or Grambling. This game - we’ve got to have it,” Evans said. “It’s a must. I’m going to put everything I have into it.”
When he does, the Jaguars usually benefit.
That last touchdown at Valley was similar to so many of Evans’ big plays at Southern.
Earlier this season, against Alabama A&M, Evans caught a short pass, broke a tackle and beat everyone to the goal line for a 72-yard score. One week later, against JSU, he made a similar play, sprinting down the sideline for a 40-yard touchdown.
Evans led the team with five touchdown catches last season. During the spring, with pro scouts in attendance, Evans ran the 40-yard dash in 4.47 seconds.
This fall, he has 22 catches for 405 yards and four TDs. Mitchell said he’d like to see Evans put together a 1,000-yard season and at least have a shot at the NFL.
“I think he has to run (and) be more explosive off the ball. That’s what scouts want to see in him,” Mitchell said. “They don’t see that explosiveness from LaQuinton until after he has the ball in his hands. So they want to see him get better in that phase, and I tell him that all the time.”
Evans was a role player through much of his first three seasons at Southern, working behind veterans like Juamorris Stewart, Warren Matthews and Curry Allen.
But Evans was obviously gifted.
He played baseball and ran track in Mansfield, honing an array of skills in a way that later benefited him as a football player.
“It taught him how to run and how to have endurance, and how to compete with yourself,” said Mayweather, the high school coach.
Evans played linebacker and safety until halfway through his junior season, after a growth spurt that transformed him from 5-foot-8 shrimp to 6-2 gazelle. He later excelled as a receiver.
“He just wanted to get on the field and actually play,” Mayweather said. “He was always eager to learn.”
Sometimes, he learned things the hard way.
Growing up in Mansfield, a small town about 35 miles south of Shreveport, he used to “act crazy,” as he put it. And he’d pay the price.
Usually, neighbors or townspeople saw Evans and his friends acting up. And because everyone knows everyone in itty-bitty Mansfield, people were sure to call Evans’ mom. Or his aunt. Or his grandmother.
“Everybody is like a parent up there. If they see you doing something wrong, they’ll tell you,” he said. “When I was younger, I’d get a whooping from everybody. I could get whooped four times for one incident.”
Luckily, Evans never strayed far enough from the right path. Former SU receivers coach Eric Dooley spotted Evans and recruited him to Baton Rouge, where he soon earned a new nickname. Whereas high school teammates called him “Quint,” everyone at Southern calls him “Smoke.”
As the story goes, the name came from former SU strength coach Thomas “Zeus” Hall. At first, it was a reference to Evans’ dark skin. But when the freshman soon put his speed on display, the nickname worked another way: Like a roadrunner, he left a trail of smoke behind him.
Three years later, Evans has become a star. Only a few things have kept him from dominating every game. Mitchell conceded he needs to get the ball in Evans’ hands more often.
Evans himself conceded he needs to refine his skills, to come out of his breaks faster and work on his route-running. Then there’s the mental approach.
“If I would change anything since I’ve been here, it would be to remain hungry,” he said. “What I’ve learned is, if your mind isn’t right, you’re not going to be right at all.”