NASHVILLE, Tenn. - In a sign of many things to come, Southern University’s world-famous marching band, The Human Jukebox, didn’t see a single play of the Jaguars’ disastrous season-opening 33-7 loss to Tennessee State in the John Merritt Classic at LP Field on Saturday night.
Earlier that day, near the Tennessee border, one of the band’s buses broke down.
“We had a water hose blow,” band director Lawrence Jackson said. “We had to have a diesel-truck repair man come out. He had a tough job to do, and he did the best he could. He did a good job. We just couldn’t make it.”
For road-weary Southern and its fans, things only got worse from there.
As it turned out, the band didn’t miss many inspiring moments from the football team. In the first game of Stump Mitchell’s second season as coach, the Jaguars threw an early interception on offense and fell out of rhythm; the defense was often overmatched against a bruising TSU attack that ripped off long runs and converted key third downs; and yet again, penalties set Southern too far back.
By the final gun, the Tigers gained 512 yards of offense, including 342 rushing yards. In truth, however, they did the most important damage in the first half, dominating the line of scrimmage en route to a 27-0 halftime lead.
“We knew we had to try to keep those guys off the field,” Mitchell said. “Anybody who was at this game saw how big their offensive line was. ... So we wanted to try to win the time of possession. We knew what we had to do. We just didn’t get it done.”
Try though it did to crawl back into the game, Southern was simply too far down.
It was not the way fans had hoped for the season to start. SU, coming off a 2-9 record in Mitchell’s debut, had hoped to see slices of improvement from their team, whose counterparts were in a similar position. Tennessee State, in its second season under coach Rod Reed, went 3-8 last season.
Saturday night, however, the Tigers were clearly better, piling up a staggering 29 first downs.
The Jaguars hurt themselves by getting in an early hole; as a result, they never established a ground game (SU finished with 37 rushing yards on 23 attempts) and had to fire away.
Starting quarterback Dray Joseph was pulled in the second half in favor of backup J.P. Douglas. He fired a 66-yard touchdown pass to freshman wideout Jordan Bilbo, who caught the ball on a deep out route and got behind the defense for the long score.
It was one of few highlights for the Southern fan base, which made up a healthy chunk of the 25,209 on hand for a steamy opener (at kickoff, the temperature was 96 degrees).
“Our game plan early in the week was to come in and run the ball,” Mitchell said.
The problem was, Southern’s top three tight ends - Javon Jordan, Rashaun Allen and Kesean Peterson - were deemed academically ineligible last week, just before the team left Baton Rouge.
Throw in a preseason injury to starting tailback Brandon Rice, and the SU ground game was stuck.
Douglas was the team’s leading rusher, with 17 yards on five attempts.
The Jaguars actually looked in rhythm early on; Joseph, who finished with 122 passing yards, connected on his first three throws. But later, on the team’s first possession, his pass to wideout Jared Green was high. It bounced off Green’s fingertips, and TSU safety Joseph Wylie returned it 59 yards for the opening touchdown.
The Tigers went ahead 13-0 on a 5-yard run by Trabis Ward, who dashed through the Southern defense for 141 yards.
The Jaguars nearly answered with a score of their own - but a short TD pass from Joseph to fullback Brian McCain was wiped out by a 15-yard illegal-blocking penalty. Ultimately, a sack and two delay-of-game penalties forced Southern to punt.
“The best defense is some offense,” Mitchell said. “We have to do better offensively.”
It didn’t help that a virtual parade of missed tackles and sack opportunities helped Tennessee State seemingly move the chains whenever they needed a clutch play.
TSU was 7 of 16 on third-down conversions and 5 of 16 inside the Jaguars’ 20-yard line.
“Southern was a good football team, but we’ll definitely meet up with some teams that could be better,” Reed said. “We play Jackson State next week, and right now, that’s where my focus already is.”
The Jaguars, on the other hand, face Alabama A&M next weekend in their Southwestern Athletic Conference opener, knowing the results have to be better.