PINE BLUFF, Ark. — All Southern needed to reverse its fortunes was for quarterback Ladarius Skelton to make a trip back home — and bring some of his friends along.
Skelton made a triumphant return to his hometown with three touchdown runs that led a grinding rushing attack, and the Jaguars defense snuffed out the No. 2 scoring team in the Southwestern Athletic Conference to win its league opener 31-7 at Simmons Bank Stadium on Saturday night.
While Skelton got much of the credit, it was a timely team victory for the Jaguars (2-3, 1-0). The offensive line was dominant; the running game produced 269 yards and all four scores; and the defense intercepted four passes while turning the home team away from the end zone time after time.
The victory was Southern’s seventh straight against UAPB (3-2, 1-1) and ended the Lions' three-game winning streak.
Skelton had scoring runs of 4, 19 and 5 yards, the latter icing the game with 8:17 left after the Southern defense stopped UAPB on fourth down at the Southern 5-yard line. The offense responded by driving 95 yards in 11 plays, all on the ground.
Chris Chaney carried six times for 61 yards on the drive, starting it with runs of 16 and 21 yards. He finished with a career-high 107 yards on 12 carries. Devon Benn ran 24 times for 96 yards.
The Lions, desperate to respond, moved into Southern territory, but Jakoby Pappillion stopped that drive with an interception and the Jaguars tacked on a 46-yard field goal by Cesar Barajas.
Tamaurice Smith, Jordan Eastling and Joe Davis each had interceptions while the run defense shut down All-SWAC tailback Taeyler Porter and held the Lions to 61 yards on 25 carries. Calvin Lunkins had 11 tackles, including a sack, while Davis had four tackles with two sacks.
“We got the running game going; to me that’s how you win football games,” Southern coach Dawson Odums said. “You pass off of it. Our run sets up the pass. We’re not as good when we have to throw the ball all over the place. Today we got off to a good start. We’ve been a pretty good third-quarter team and we were able to force our will on them.
“This is a good football team we played. They were scoring a lot of points. We played well in all three phases.”
Skelton completed 17 of 25 passes for 157 yards without a touchdown. One of his two interceptions was not his fault, coming on a tipped pass batted multiple times. He was sacked only once when a ball was tipped out of his hand while trying to pass and he made some crucial scrambles to keep the chains moving.
Odums said Skelton, whose starting job was in jeopardy after he struggled last week, responded with a strong week of practice.
“Ladarius’ focus was very good,” Odums said. “He was tired of reading the press clippings that he is up and down. We helped him. I went back to the coaches and said, 'We’re not playing with him the way we played the last six games of 2018. Let’s get back to what he does really well, narrow the playbook down and get back to his skill set. Let’s coach to his strengths and put him in position to make plays.'
“The whole week of preparation was really good for us. The way our guys executed in the beginning, I felt if we could slow their offense down our offense could move the ball. When our offense executes, they’re hard to stop.”
Southern led 14-7 at halftime but started to pull away when Skelton scrambled 19 yards for a score after UAPB blanketed his receivers. The drive was set up by an 11-yard punt that gave the Jaguars possession at their 45. Skelton kept the drive alive with an 18-yard pass to Brandon Hinton on third-and-12 and then carried it in two plays later.
Southern, coming off a 27-21 loss at Florida A&M, looked like a different team from its first series and on offense and defense.
Skelton guided his team to four first downs, and although the drive ended in a missed field goal, the Jaguars set the tone. On their next possession, Southern went 83 yards in 12 plays, and Skelton scored on a 4-yard run, starting to the left and then going right to walk into the end zone for a 7-0 lead with 3:46 left in the first quarter.
The Jaguars defense set up another TD moments later when Davis stepped in front of a short pass and rambled to the UAPB 34-yard line. Skelton made converted a huge third down with a 16-yard pass to Jamar Washington and freshman Jarod Sims made it 14-0 with a 3-yard run, Southern’s seventh consecutive running play on the drive.
Skelton was 6 for 9 passing for 60 yards on Southern’s first three possessions, but he also had his struggles with some inaccurate throws and a pair of interceptions later in the half. T.J. Bedford had six catches for 51 yards as Southern had success with a shorter passing game.
Southern’s offensive line overcame injuries with help the offense rush for 141 first-half yards and did not allow a sack.
The Southern defense picked up some of the slack despite allowing some big plays. After being torched for 355 yards the week before, the Jaguars pick off three passes. Tamaurice Smith’s end zone interception stopped on drive and Jordan Eastling picked off another at the Southern 3 with 40 seconds left in the half to stop another.
The Jaguars held UAPB to 25 yards rushing in the first half.