It all started well enough.
In the opening minutes of an otherwise gruesome season-opening 33-7 loss, the Southern football team looked like it might actually stand toe-to-toe with Tennessee State.
The defense held TSU on its first possession, and Jaguars quarterback Dray Joseph went to work. Working on scripted, predetermined plays, he connected on each of his first three passes — quick throws on three-step drops to his two best receivers, LaQuinton Evans and Charles Hawkins.
The old feeling was on its way back. Maybe Southern, in its second opener under coach Stump Mitchell, really was on its way back to respectability.
Just like that, the feeling was blown away for good.
Joseph’s next pass, though high, fluttered off the hands of receiver Jared Green, then into the hands of TSU defender Joseph Wylie. He promptly returned his interception for a touchdown.
And the rout was on.
Saturday night at LP Field in Nashville, Tenn., the Jaguars looked disturbingly similar to last year’s team, which, in case anyone forgot, lost its final six games and finished with the first 2-9 record in school history.
Missed tackles ... blown assignments ... a barrage of penalties ... a struggling ground game ... most of the old familiar traits were there.
After the game, several players, including tackle Chris Browne and safety Marlon Smith, said the team needed to get down to business this week, adding that the Jaguars are better than the way the played.
They’d better be right.
In five days, they host Alabama A&M at A.W. Mumford Stadium in the Southwestern Athletic Conference opener.
It’s probably not a must-win game. It is, however, a must-play-better-than-the-week-before game.
The Bulldogs went 3-8 last season, but one of their three victories was a thorough beating of Southern on Sept. 25, when they dominated the line of scrimmage in a 34-14 win that was more lopsided than the score.
Alabama A&M lost its season opener Saturday against Hampton 21-20. But under longtime coach Anthony Jones, the Bulldogs have earned their reputation as a physical team — a tough cookie, even when they’re not at their best.
After one game, Southern has to wonder if it can handle such a team.
After that, the Jaguars face Jackson State and Florida A&M.
If Saturday’s performance was nothing more than a one-time clunker, well, maybe they’ll be OK.
If Saturday’s performance was an accurate depiction of Southern’s talent and capabilities, the team is staring at 0-for-September, and this could be a long, long season — longer, even, than last year.
This season certainly started with an avalanche of bad karma, and it started well before the game did.
Southern left Baton Rouge without its top three tight ends, who were deemed academically ineligible. Two of them, Kesean Peterson and Rashaun Allen, will probably miss the entire season, Mitchell said, because they didn’t make the necessary grades during the summer semester.
As for Javon Jordan, the team has filed a waiver with the NCAA and is still awaiting a decision.
The main problem was, all three tight ends — Peterson, Allen and Jordan — practiced during the preseason and were supposed to be an important part of the offense.
But the team didn’t learn the academic fate of Peterson and Allen until the day before it left for Nashville. How or why that happened is anyone’s guess at this point, but it reflects poorly on Southern as a whole.
At any rate, the coaching staff was forced to scramble, shifting receivers and offensive linemen to plug the leak. As a result, the SU rushing attack never gained traction.
And because the offense struggled, Southern’s defense was on the field entirely too long. It was exactly the opposite of what Southern hoped for.
Knowing that Tennessee State had a huge offensive line (average weight: 312 pounds), and that the Tigers wanted to pound the football, Mitchell had hoped to give his defense plenty of rest.
Instead, Southern’s defense got pounded for most of the second quarter. By halftime, TSU had a 27-0 lead.
Despite all that, there were tiny morsels of good news.
To their credit, the Jaguars kept playing hard during the second half, holding TSU to a pair of field goals.
But the best piece of news for Southern might have come from the out-of-town scoreboard, where the results involving most SWAC teams were pretty rough.
Alabama A&M lost to Hampton. Arkansas-Pine Bluff lost to Langston 19-12. Prairie View got body-slammed by Bethune-Cookman 63-14 on Sunday. Alcorn State, thought to be a contender in the Eastern Division, struggled in a 21-14 loss to Grambling.
So perhaps, looking forward, some of Southern’s future opponents aren’t as strong as advertised.
On the other hand, they’re probably saying the same thing about Southern. After all, Saturday’s opener was gruesome.
“It wasn’t the way we wanted it to go,” Joseph said. “We’ll just come back next week and have a way better game.”
They’ll have to.