Southern defense seeks improvement on third down _lowres

Advocate staff photo by HILARY SCHEINUK -- Prairie View A&M running back Johnta Hebert (3) reaches for extra yardage after being stopped by Southern defensive back Danny Johnson (10) in the fourth quarter, Saturday, October 17, 2015, at A.W. Mumford Stadium on Southern University's campus in Baton Rouge, La.

Defenses strive to contain the run well enough to get opposing offenses into obvious passing situations on third downs.

That’s supposed to put them in a favorable position to force the opposition to punt, but that formula hasn’t always worked out the way it’s supposed to for Southern this season.

The Jaguars are allowing the fewest rushing yards in Southwestern Athletic Conference play (122.0 yards per game), but they’re allowing the most passing yards (309.2), which has been a major factor in them yielding the highest rate of third-down conversions (53.8 percent).

“We’re not playing bad on first and second down,” said coach Dawson Odums, who serves as his own defensive coordinator. “We get to third down, and your tackling is like you don’t know how. We hope to get this team we’re playing Saturday to third down so we can show that we’re a better team on third down.”

Southern visits Texas Southern on Saturday, a week after allowing Prairie View to convert 11 of 16 third downs in handing the Jaguars their first conference loss.

Odums said Southern “shot itself in the foot” against the Panthers. In addition to the third-down breakdowns, it lost four fumbles, dropped two passes and had several special teams breakdowns.

“It was a game full of mistakes,” Odums said.

“It was like giving them an early Christmas present,” running back Lenard Tillery said. “We didn’t play like ourselves. We had errors on defense, we had errors on special teams, and we had errors on offense. Although we did a lot of good things, we just had errors at crucial points in the game.”

The turnovers, drops and special-teams mistakes could be considered aberrations, whereas the third-down conversions have been an ongoing issue.

“We’ve been surviving early on in the season,” Odums said. “You can’t keep doing that, and it finally caught up with us.”

Odums said something else might have caught up with the Jaguars, who didn’t have spring practice because of NCAA sanctions.

“You miss a lot of snaps when you don’t have spring ball so you can’t come to fall camp and really work on those fundamentals because you’ve got to get ready to play,” Odums said. “You don’t have as much time once the season starts to work on the fundamentals. It’s time to prepare for teams and get ready to play.

“You lose that focus. That’s what the spring practice is all about: to create that discipline and create those fundamentals and work on some things that you know that once you get to fall camp you’re not going to have time to work on. So not having that, you’re seeing some of the flaws.”

Cornerback Danny Johnson said the third-down failures are “more mental than physical.”

“We all have to be locked in and do our assignments,” Johnson said. “On third down, we know we have to get off the field and get our offense the ball back because we know they can move the ball.

“So defensively, we’ve got to lock in more and focus on getting off the field and get the offense the ball so they can put some points on the board.”

The secondary has been bolstered by the return of cornerback Jamar Mitchell, who was starting opposite Johnson before being sidelined by a hamstring injury in preseason camp. Mitchell missed the first four games, then played limited snaps as a reserve the past two games.

He returned to his starting position during practice this week, supplanting freshman Demerio Houston, whom Odums has routinely praised for his play.

Mitchell said the third-down play can improve with “more focus, knowing the down and distance and where the sticks are at.”

Odums suggested that the Jaguars might get more creative with their pass rush to generate more sacks.

“I think our front four is applying a lot of pressure,” Odums said. “We’re hitting the quarterback probably one out of every three times, but they’re getting the ball off.

“So we’re not getting their fast enough, and we’re not getting there often enough. So the front four has to get there faster or we have to move guys around and try to get match-ups that favor us.”

Follow Les East on Twitter, @EastAdvocate.