The division title-winning performance Southern put on in the Bayou Classic on Saturday has been building for a while — six games and eight weeks, to be exact.
The heart-stopping 52-45 victory against Grambling was something the Jaguars weren’t capable of doing in late September. Back then, they were a team searching for an identity. Now they’re a team preparing to play Alcorn State for the Southwestern Athletic Conference championship Saturday in Houston.
The Jaguars bottomed out in a 56-16 loss at Alcorn State on Sept. 27. They were missing key pieces on defense, were searching for the right combination on the offensive line and were being led by a talented freshman quarterback who was in the early stages of an accelerated maturation process.
But week by week, Southern starting fixing things, and the victories started to mount.
A handful of key defensive players either received belated academic certification or returned from injury.
The offensive line stabilized, and a trio of running backs returned from injury.
Austin Howard continued to grow week by week at quarterback, his development aided by having to play every snap in four straight games while Deonte Shorts was injured.
Jaleel Richardson was cleared academically and joined Willie Quinn and Danny Johnson to give the team three standout kick returners.
Then, in perhaps the final piece to the puzzle, wide receiver Mike Jones, a track sprinter who’s one of the most explosive players on an offense loaded with playmakers, got healthy after being slowed by an ankle injury most of the season.
Along the way, the victories began to mount, and a return trip to Houston for the Southwestern Athletic Conference championship game started to seem more and more realistic.
Each week one or more areas stood out in a victory.
Howard and Reggie Travis brought the passing game to life, and Johnson returned a kickoff for a touchdown against Arkansas-Pine Bluff.
Long touchdown passes from Howard to Quinn and Justin Morgan as well as a last-minute touchdown drive overcame a 20-point deficit at Alabama A&M.
After an open date, Lenard Tillery ignited the run game, Richardson returned a kickoff for a touchdown and Quinn returned a punt for a touchdown in an easy win at Jackson State.
It was Howard and the defense that led the way against Alabama State to kick off a 3-0 homestand in November.
The defense took center stage, and Tillery and the running game assisted against Texas Southern.
The same formula worked against Mississippi Valley State as the defense and the running game were dominant.
On Saturday, it all came together. Tillery and the running game and Howard and the passing game provided ideal balance on offense.
Richardson provided the Jaguars’ fourth kickoff return for a touchdown this season.
The defense contained the Tigers offense as Southern built a three-touchdown lead, then came up with a goal-line stop on the final play.
Though all three phases contributed, each had breakdowns. Howard had a fourth-quarter interception as the offense slowed in the second half, the defense nearly squandered the lead before making the final stop and the special teams allowed a kickoff return for a touchdown and a blocked field goal.
So there’s still some polishing that can be done this week, but the Jaguars head into the title game after their most complete performance of the season.
The team that will face Alcorn this time is a much different one than faced it the last.
“Y’all know how we started the season,” coach Dawson Odums said. “So for us to be here ... I wish I had the Las Vegas odds.”