A college football season of great promise can crash and burn quickly, and while Southern still has all of its goals in front of it, Saturday’s game at the least represents a time for a sense of urgency.
The struggling Jaguars travel to meet Arkansas-Pine Bluff in Southern’s SWAC opener at 6 p.m. that looks like a difficult way to get a season on track.
While Southern has owned the Golden Lions during coach Dawson Odums' tenure (6-1), UAPB looks like a much more formidable opponent this time with two impressive victories in a 3-1 start, its best since 2012. Conversely, the 1-3 Jaguars are simply trying to shake out of the doldrums created by slow starts and inconsistent efforts.
Southern was the preseason favorite to win the West Division while UAPB was picked to finish last in the same group. Another loss for the Jaguars could turn the division race upside down, but Odums is confident his team will respond and play well.
“The players on this team usually rise to the occasion, and we’ve got an occasion we need to meet this weekend,” Odums said Tuesday. “(SWAC play) gives you a sense of a second season. We’ve got a second lifeline. Everything we want to achieve is still in front of us. The challenge is to play 60 minutes. If we do, we’ll finally find out what kind of team we have.”
So far, Odums has found out he has a team with an unexpectedly unsettled quarterback position. Ladarius Skelton, who finished strong in 2018, has been inconsistent at best in all four games and has yet to play four quarters. Coincidentally, Skelton will be playing as a visitor in his hometown Saturday for the first time, which Odums hopes will spur something in the talented, dual-threat junior quarterback.
Skelton went 5-1 down the stretch last season, including 283 yards and four touchdowns against UAPB. He’s ranked No. 11 among SWAC passers with 368 yards and four touchdowns.
Odums said Skelton has been hesitant in delivering the ball and unable to spot open receivers. The offensive staff is scrutinizing details and considering everything, including giving him less to think about. He played better in 2018 with a scaled-down game plan.
“I think with a lot of family and friends, it’s good to be back where it all started, and hopefully motivate yourself to perform well,” Odums said. “It should give you some motivation.
“(The heavy game plan) could have something to do with it. We’ve addressed that. We look at what we were doing really well last year, making sure he’s comfortable. When he’s confident and comfortable, he plays well.”
Odums said the offensive staff will have backup Bubba McDaniel ready to go and that he will play a series regardless of how Skelton performs. Most of all, Southern needs to get off to a good start after digging itself into a hole in winnable losses to McNeese State and Florida A&M. Not all of the issues should be placed at Skelton’s feet.
The Jaguars’ best quality is experience, with 34 players in the program for four or five seasons. Odums said as much as the loss to FAMU hurt — Southern took the lead in the fourth quarter before falling 27-21 — he’s confident his team has put it in the past and wouldn't look past the Golden Lions.
“We are excited about this game,” linebacker Caleb Carter said. “We’ve never taken them lightly. A lot of things have changed in the SWAC. We have to be on our Ps and Qs.”
That’s especially true for the defense, which will be facing a dynamic offense that plays two quarterbacks and has two strong running backs in 2018 SWAC rushing champion Taeyler Porter and Keyshawn Williams, both seniors, who have combined for 675 yards and eight touchdowns. Quarterbacks Skyler Perry and Hannon Patrick have combined for 1,070 yards and 12 TDs with only four interceptions.
UAPB upset Alabama A&M 52-34 in Week 2 and knocked off Tennessee State for the first time last week, 37-31. The Golden Lions are averaging 458 yards per game on offense and have shored up their defense, especially against the run.
“We have to tackle, can’t miss tackles,” linebacker Caleb Carter said. “We have to stay on our assignments and play all the way to the last snap. We have to stop the run, limit big plays and get off the field on third down.”
UAPB is allowing 118.3 yards rushing per game, second-best in the SWAC behind Southern at 115. Second-year coach Cedric Thomas, who was defensive coordinator at Alcorn State in 2016-17, has resumed calling the Lions defense to good effect.
Thomas has been credited with the Lions’ turnaround from a 2-9 mark last season. He instilled discipline, dismissed 20 players from last year’s team and got key players such as Williams and Patrick back from an injury-filled 2018 season.
“We believed we could be in this position, from spring to fall camp,” Patrick said. “We knew we had a lot of talent and that we’d shock a lot of people. We knew we could have a good season. We’re not worried about what other people think.
“The secret is that everyone bought in A lot of players stayed through the summer and bought in to what coach Thomas was preaching.”
Odums is looking for some more buy-in from his team before the season slips away. He knows his team can ill afford another slow start and that it needs to start clicking more consistently.
“Come Saturday we’ll know; we’re playing a really good football team,” he said. “I think we’ll be up for the challenge. We’ve got to play better, coach better. This is the perfect week to do all those things better.”