ITTA BENA, Miss. — Southern got exactly what it needed in its Southwestern Athletic Conference opener against Mississippi Valley State on Thursday night in Rice-Totten Stadium.
First and foremost, of course, the Jaguars got a victory, but beyond that, the manner in which they achieved victory was significant as well.
Southern’s dominance from the first possession of the game showed that it is, to use a phrase coach Dawson Odums likes to use, “as advertised.”
The Jaguars have won the SWAC West division the last two seasons and most observers expect them to contend for a third straight title. But after a 62-15 loss at Louisiana Tech in the season opener, it was difficult to tell how likely this team is to live up to that expectation.
Now, the victory against the outmanned Delta Devils doesn’t mean much other than Southern cleared its first, and perhaps easiest, hurdle in the conference season.
But championship-caliber teams don’t demonstrate their worth solely in games against their fellow contenders, in this case presumably Alcorn State, Grambling and perhaps a couple others yet to be identified.
Championship-caliber teams also demonstrate their worth by how they handle their business week to week. In this case it was how the Jaguars handled their business in the wake of a poor opening act and during a short week that culminated with a second road game in five days.
When Southern scored touchdowns on its first five possessions and didn’t allow a first down on Valley’s first three possessions, it showed an audience on ESPNU — and more importantly itself, its coaches and the rest of the SWAC — that it is as advertised.
First-year Jaguars, several of whom were thrust into important roles Thursday, saw their more experienced teammates demonstrate that you don’t allow the previous game to linger as you prepare for the next challenge and you don’t allow an outmanned opponent to linger very far into a game.
It was obvious before the first quarter was over that the Devils weren’t going to hang with the Jaguars just as it was obvious before the first quarter of the opener was over that the Jaguars weren’t going to hang with Louisiana Tech.
Southern asserted its dominance up front right away by opening holes for rushing touchdowns by Lenard Tillery on the first two possessions and getting three sacks on Valley’s first two possessions.
Sophomore quarterback Austin Howard, much like the team as a whole, put aside a poor performance and turned in a confident, efficient, albeit imperfect performance.
The defense put aside a poor showing and the absence of three players in the secondary to force Devils quarterback Quantavius Peterson to the sideline after his team moved more backward than forward in the early going.
Then there was Willie Quinn, one of the few Jaguars who didn’t have to put aside a poor performance in the opener because he had provided one of the few highlights with a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.
He just built on that performance, returning another kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown, taking back a punt 39 yards for a score and tossing an 89-yard touchdown pass to Randall Menard, showing why he just may be the most dynamic player in the entire FCS.
Even though Southern’s victory was about as stress-free as a victory in a college football game can be for a team and its followers, it included some blemishes that will remind the Jaguars that this was just the second step in an 11-step march that will determine if another postseason trip awaits.
The defense allowed a few big plays and had occasional missed the tackles. The special teams had similar issues and failed on two conversions.
Now comes the home opener against Jackson State next Saturday.
The mostly bad performance at Tech didn’t prevent Southern from finding positives to build on.
Now the challenge is to not allow a mostly good performance against Valley to prevent the Jaguars from finding negatives to improve on.
Follow Les East on Twitter: @EastAdvocate.