MONTGOMERY, Ala. - The moment of truth was at hand.
Moments earlier, in what looked like another trademark collapse, the Southern football team fizzled on offense, made too many late mistakes on defense and gave away a fourth-quarter lead to Alabama State.
But before freshman quarterback J.P. Douglas led the Jaguars to a game-winning touchdown with 9 seconds left in a 26-23 thriller at the Cramton Bowl, he and his teammates had a short meeting with coach Stump Mitchell on the visitors sideline.
So many times, the Jaguars had been in this spot before. So many times, they caved under pressure.
“Coach told us we needed to come together as an offense,” Douglas said. “He told us, ?Remember all the times that we lost the close ones. Win this close one.’ “
Southern took over at its own 27-yard line with 2:59 remaining.
Nine plays and 72 yards later, with time running out and a jittery, nervous crowd looking on, Southern set up shop on the 1-yard line with 14 seconds left. Finally, Douglas handed off to big fullback Brian McCain, who barreled over a pile of muscle and shoulder pads to give the Jaguars a three-point lead.
Instead of wilting under pressure, the Jaguars finally delivered.
“It seems like every time before, the odds were against us, and we couldn’t pull a win off,” McCain said. “The defense would play a good game, or the offense would play a good game, but we never had the opportunity to finish. It feels good that, through all the adversity that we faced here today, we pulled one out as a team. It’s a great feeling.”
McCain’s score was also a slice of personal vindication.
Three hundred sixty-four days earlier, on a cold night at A.W. Mumford Stadium, the Jaguars scored a late touchdown to pull within two points of Alabama State with 16 seceonds remaining - but McCain punched an ASU defender after the play, forcing the Jaguars to try their two-point conversion from the 18-yard line.
It failed, and SU went on to finish 2-9.
Saturday, toward the end of a splendid, sunny afternoon, Mitchell called “20 dive” on back-to-back plays with time running out.
McCain was short of the goal line on his first try from the 1, with 14 seconds left - but officials flagged Alabama State for a neutral-zone infraction, temporarily stopping the clock and giving SU another first-and-goal from the 1.
That set the stage for McCain’s TD.
“We were still in it. They weren’t ahead by a whole lot of points, and we knew we needed a touchdown,” Mitchell said. “A field goal would not work. So we were able to go down (and) get the winning touchdown. Our fans are happy, and so are we.”
By pulling out a win in the clutch, the Jaguars (4-6, 4-4) gave themselves a boost as they headed into their final open week this season.
After that, it’s the big show down in New Orleans. SU faces Grambling in the Bayou Classic on Nov. 26.
In an uncharacteristic display of emotion - Mitchell is often a walking mushroom cloud at practice but the picture of calm on game day - the coach pumped his fists and freely traded hugs and handshakes, fired up by the upset victory over an ASU team that missed its chance to clinch the Eastern Division title.
Mitchell’s eyes even got a little watery.
An emotional win? Yes, Mitchell said. After all, his Jaguars had lost four games this season by fewer than six points, and the previous week’s trip to Texas Southern resulted in a 29-15 belly-flop.
“Yeah. Yeah, it’s emotional, because these guys have played extremely hard all year, and unfortunately, we were our own worst enemy,” Mitchell said. “Even though we had some turnovers today, the defense came together and stepped up. They made big plays for us.”
They at least made enough.
In the first quarter, Southern - already trailing 7-0 - made a crucial goal-line stand after Alabama State (7-3, 7-2 Southwestern Athletic Conference) recovered a fumble at the 1, and the Hornets missed a 23-yard field goal.
Later, after quarterback Dray Joseph suffered a second-quarter concussion - he made a surprise start after playing behind Douglas the previous three games - Douglas led the Jaguars to a touchdown and a field goal, giving SU a 12-7 halftime lead.
The Jaguars made it 19-7 on their first possession of the third quarter. After that, however, they largely tiptoed through the second half.
Meanwhile, the Hornets got a charge from quarterback Greg Jenkins, who came off the bench to relieve the ineffective Devin Dominguez.
In a wild-but-sloppy fourth quarter - at one point, the teams fumbled combined for three fumbles in five plays - Alabama State scored 16 unanswered points, capped by Tim Clark’s 5-yard run with 3:07 remaining.
Long story short: Alabama State had all the momentum, and once again, Southern was closing in on another meltdown.
“I think the first half, we didn’t play well offensively,” ASU coach Reggie Barlow said. “And then we just gave them too many extra opportunities when we were on defense. We allowed them to get first downs and keep the chains moving.”
Douglas began the final drive with a 17-yard pass to LaQuinton Evans, whose fumble on SU’s previous possession led to Clark’s go-ahead score.
Later, on a fourth-and-3, Douglas found Charles Hawkins for an 8-yard gain.
One play later, he fired a 27-yard pass to wideout Mike Berry on a post route, giving Southern the momentum shift it needed.
With that, the Jaguars had a first-and-10 at the 12-yard line.
Five plays later, they had a touchdown.
That felt different.
That felt good.
“Real good,” Douglas said. “It feels even better, after losing all those games, to come out and finally win a close game.”