In the final moments of Saturday’s 22-21 loss at Arkansas-Pine Bluff last week, Southern coach Stump Mitchell had to make two crucial decisions.
One of them was right on the money.
With 2 seconds left, the Jaguars were down by seven points and had the ball at the UAPB 11-yard line. Southern lined up for a play, and UAPB took a timeout - ostensibly to take a longer look at the Jaguars’ offensive formation.
Mitchell then called for a throwback screen to Sylvester Nzekwe, which gave the Jaguars the touchdown they needed. The call, and the players’ execution of it, fooled the defense enough for Nzekwe to beat a lone defender and sneak inside the left pylon.
That, in turn, left Mitchell with another tough decision: Should he go for an all-or-nothing two-point conversion? Or try for the extra point and overtime?
Mitchell chose the latter, and UAPB blocked the kick.
“I didn’t want to ... go for two and fail that way,” Mitchell said Monday. “The guys had played extremely hard, and I wanted to give our defense an opportunity, or our offense an opportunity, depending on who had gotten the ball first in overtime.”
Of course, it didn’t work out. As Mitchell later said, in a matter-of-fact tone: “A PAT is not a given.”
On the final extra-point attempt, Southern sent in senior Manuel Canto, who began this season as the starting place-kicker but hadn’t attempted an extra point since a Sept. 17 game against Jackson State.
Mitchell said he made the change in part because sophomore Matt Hill was 1-for-2 on field-goal attempts and 0-for-1 on extra-points.
“The problem with the last PAT (was), we had leakage,” Mitchell said. “They came up the middle. We had no chance. ... Their defensive line charged well. We stepped wrong on the edge, and the guy got on the inside and we had no chance.”
Southern allowed 298 rushing yards Saturday - the second-highest total for an opponent this year, trailing only Tennessee State (342) - and while Mitchell wasn’t necessarily pleased with it, he gave several reasons.
First of all, he said, the defensive line was hobbled before the trip even began. Reserve tackle Traé Tiller (ankle) didn’t travel; end Jeffrey Watkins tried to play despite what Mitchell called an extremely painful bone bruise; and end Kadeem Lewis (ankle) finished with three tackles playing at “about 50 percent,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell also conceded what many fans and opponents have already noted this season: That the defensive line, even when healthy, is a little short on numbers and bulk.
“We knew, and we still know, that we’re thin on the defensive line,” he said. “We were able, during the recruiting season, to bring in some offensive linemen. But we tried to get some defensive linemen that chose to go elsewhere. So it’s not like it’s not a point of emphasis for us. It was last spring, during recruiting, and it is now.”
Mitchell did add there were times Saturday when linemen and linebackers were out of position.
“But guys are working extremely hard, and I’m proud of the effort they’re giving, even though sometimes they’re not able to make it happen,” he said.
Mitchell said his team will try to accomplish two major goals during its first open week: Allow players to catch up on class work and allow players to heal. ... Nzekwe fumbled on the first play from scrimmage Saturday - and while Mitchell said fumbles are inexcusable, he added that “I love him,” and that UAPB’s Joe Dalton did “put a good hat on the ball.” ... Mitchell also noted that next week’s homecoming game against Alcorn State will be tough for both teams because Thomas “Zeus” Hall’s death early Sunday in a car crash. Hall was a former SU player and longtime strength coach who moved to Alcorn in the spring.