A blocked punt. A muffed punt. A fumble on the 1-yard line. And more dropped passes.
Early on, Southern’s game against Texas Southern was looking every bit like the Jaguars’ five-point home loss to Prairie View the week before.
In the second half, Southern made sure it didn’t finish that way.
Instead, it was the Jaguars defense and special teams making big plays, while the offense rode the legs of Lenard Tillery for a 40-21 win over TSU in a rain-soaked BBVA Compass Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
Tillery ran for a career-high 196 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries, while a punt block and sack-forcing fumble proved the difference in a pivotal third quarter.
“We had our backs against the wall, and I think they stepped up and accepted the challenge,” Southern coach Dawson Odums said.
“We just challenged our guys to get off the field defensively and stay on the field offensively. When we do that, we are going to be successful.”
Defensively, the Jaguars (4-3, 4-1 Southwestern Athletic Conference) held the Tigers to just 92 total yards on 48 offensive plays. The effort came seven days after they gave up 284 yards and four touchdowns to Prairie View running back Johnta’ Hebert alone.
TSU quarterback and reigning SWAC offensive player of the week Averion Hurts completed only six of 11 passes for 102 yards while rushing for minus-15 for TSU (3-4, 2-4).
“We played the defense we know we can play,” said linebacker Aaron Tiller, who finished with two of the Jaguars’ eight sacks.
“Coach said in the locker room to turn it up a notch. It’s win or go home. We turned it up a notch and played the football we know we can play for a full game.”
Offensively, the Jaguars possessed the ball for 10 minutes more than the Tigers and have scored at least 40 points in all five SWAC games.
Tillery scored two short touchdowns early but ran for 121 of his 196 yards in the second half.
“Going into the game, we wanted to be a little more balanced — but as the weather came out, we adjusted and had success running the ball, so that is what we kept doing,” Tillery said.
The teams were tied at 21 at halftime, but two big plays gave Southern the momentum early in the third quarter.
Southern linebacker Daniel Brown sacked Hurts, who fumbled at his own 11. Tiller recovered and the Jaguars took the lead minutes later on a Greg Pittman field goal.
On the next possession, Mike Jones blocked a punt and had a chance to land on the ball for a touchdown, but it ended up rolling it out of the end zone for a safety.
After the free kick, Southern put together its longest drive of the day, highlighted by six Tillery runs totaling 44 yards that lead to a Deonte Shorts 13-yard run and a 33-21 lead.
“We didn’t get to enjoy our homecoming (last week), and we didn’t want them to enjoy theirs,” Odums said. “We are a talented football team. We are also a scary football team because you don’t know which one is going to show up.”
Early on, it was not the best Southern team.
Willie Quinn led the game off with a 96-yard kickoff return, but things were up and down from there.
Nico Talbert muffed a punt at the 12-yard line, which led to a Brad Woodard touchdown for TSU.
After Tillery’s touchdowns gave SU a comfortable 21-7 lead, SU got beat on a 54-yard touchdown catch by Larry Clark.
Then, Southern’s Malcolm Crockett fumbled the ball at the 1-yard line. On Southern’s next possession, it had a punt blocked, which led to a 21-yard Malike Cross touchdown catch to tie the game at 21.
“They might have had 21 points, but only about 13 plays,” Odums said. “We just told our kids to stay the course. If we don’t help them anymore, I liked our chances.”
In the second half, that is exactly what Southern did. The Jaguars outgained TSU 184 to minus-35.
“We just knew we had to step it up,” Brown said. “It went to half tied up so it was like a new game. We just had to come out in the second half and hunt.
Southern will look to keep things going next week, when it hosts Alcorn State, the reigning SWAC champion.
“You never want to go two down, and this game breaks the losing momentum. Now we need to keep building the winning momentum.”