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Southern University running back Craig Nelson (21) leads would-be tacklers including McNeese State defensive lineman Accord Green (99) and linebacker Kordell Williams (23) on a long run in the fourth quarter, Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021 in A.W. Mumford Stadium. The Jaguars led 21-10 at the half, but came up short, 31-24.

The way Southern University has run the ball this football season is what pleases first-year head coach Jason Rollins the most.

Unfortunately, the Jaguars are going to be thin at the running back position with the SWAC opener against Mississippi Valley State (0-2) looming at 2 p.m. Sunday at Memorial Stadium in Jackson, Mississippi.

Leading rusher Craig Nelson will get his first career start while senior starter Devon Benn sits out the first half because of a targeting call in last week’s loss to McNeese State. Benn was flagged while making a tackle on an interception return.

“Craig Nelson will be the starter,” Rollins said Tuesday at his weekly Zoom conference call. “Behind that, we will work through that as the week goes.”

Nelson has rushed for 197 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries. Southern’s third man up through the first three games has been freshman Kobe Dillon, a converted quarterback, but Rollins may not want to risk his inexperience in the league opener.

Dillon has 57 yards on six carries, all in the fourth quarter of the Jaguars' victory against Miles College with Southern leading by 17 points. Sophomore running back Jerodd Sims has yet to play and was ruled out this week by Rollins. He is likely to return after the Oct. 2 open date.

“I like how we can run the ball,” Rollins said. “We can get downhill, run the ball and play physical. I love our attitude. We have a very competitive attitude; we love to compete.”

The part Rollins said is the biggest issue is penalties, and the Jaguars have been hit particularly hard by targeting calls with five in three games — two last week alone. Kaymen St. Junious was ejected in the first half of the McNeese game for a hit on quarterback Cody Orgeron, who was sliding after scrambling.

Rollins said he spoke with the conference office on Monday and it was confirmed both were questionable.

“Targeting is an interpretation of the officiating crew,” Rollins said. “Some may call it a little different, so you have to know the crew itself. The rule is harsh, missing a half of football is harsh but those are rules we have to adjust to and play by.

“The one on Devon Benn, he didn’t lead with his helmet. It didn’t look that way because the other player’s helmet came off. He hit him with his shoulder and came into his head. It wasn’t targeting per se, but it’s in the eye of the officiating crew.”

On top of the running game, Rollins said he’s pleased with the improved tackling of the defense, which held McNeese State to 263 yards and one touchdown.

Mississippi Valley State has lost to Murray State (35-0) and Stephen F. Austin (58-13) with an open date between. The Delta Devils are 6-45 in SWAC play on the field since 2014 but haven’t played Southern since 2015, a 55-0 Jaguars victory. The last time MVSU won two games in a season was 2013 (Alabama A&M and Texas Southern). Valley beat Southern 6-0 in 2012, the last game for former coach Stump Mitchell.

“Valley is fundamentally sound and extremely physical,” Rollins said. “It’s another opportunity to compete. We want to get back on the field and get this bad taste out of our mouths.

“It’s always good to get back to work for a conference game. It has our full attention and that makes for an easier transition.”

Why Sunday? Why Jackson?

The game is being played as part of an event called Soul Filled Weekend in Jackson. JSU and Delta State play Saturday night in Memorial Stadium and the weekend festivities include the Ashley Robinson/W.C. Gorden Golf Classic Friday.

Southern will have an extra day to prepare but won’t lose a day the following week because the Jaguars have an open date on Oct. 2.

Polls

Southern stayed at No. 7 in the BOXTOROW HBCU coaches’ poll but dropped one spot to No. 8 in the media top 10. Alabama A&M and Jackson State remained 1-2 in both polls.