Southern opens its Southwestern Athletic Conference schedule with a different kind of challenge for coach Jason Rollins.
In Mississippi Valley State, Southern is playing a team it hasn’t faced in five seasons and one that hasn’t had much success since the days when Willie Totten was throwing touchdown passes to Jerry Rice.
The Delta Devils (0-2) are off to another poor start with one touchdown in two games and have been outscored 93-13.
After the NCAA legislated some of the contact work out of fall practice, Southern is trying to get it back as quickly as possible.
Preparation for Sunday’s 2 p.m. kickoff in Jackson’s Veterans Memorial Stadium will include Rollins convincing his team not to assume anything.
But the coach scoffs at that notion, considering his team isn’t exactly on a roll.
“We’re 1-2 so we can’t look past anyone,” Rollins said. “We focus on one week at a time and try to play the best we can. This week we have to be 1-0. It has nothing to do with who we’re playing.”
It’s hard not to notice MVSU’s futility. The Devils are 6-45 vs. SWAC foes during the past seven seasons and have lost their last six. But except for last year’s abbreviated pandemic schedule, they always seem to knock off one of their league foes.
The way Southern University has run the ball this football season is what pleases first-year head coach Jason Rollins the most.
Arkansas-Pine Bluff lost three consecutive meetings to MVSU from 2016-18. Reigning league champ Alabama A&M lost twice to the Devils in a three-year span, MVSU even knocked off in-state rival Jackson State.
Fourth-year coach Vincent Dancy said he’s aware of the perception.
“We know a lot of teams circle us on the schedule,” Dancy said on the SWAC coaches Zoom conference. “We understand that. We know what we need to do. I know we’ve got a better team than we showed the last two games.”
The Devils were shut out 35-0 by Murray State and fell to Stephen F. Austin 58-13 in a flurry of turnovers and big plays earlier this season. In between was an open date that Dancy said did his team more harm than good.
MVSU allowed 307 yards rushing against Murray State and improved on that by allowing 55 to SFA. But last week the Devils had two interceptions returned for a touchdown and allowed a 70-yard punt return, all in the first half.
“I saw some great moments, some bright spots, and we have to build on them,” Dancy said. “You can’t expect to win a game giving up 21 points that’s not against your defense.
“Having a bye week so early wasn’t good for us. We’ve got guys that need to play football. We’ve got a lot of transfers, guys who need that chemistry and continuity, a lot of different guys. To be successful they have to play the game. You can’t mimic the speed of the game in practice. Live reps make you better. I think we’ll be a much better team against Southern.”
The Devils’ best offensive threat thus far has been running back Caleb Johnson. He rushed for 89 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries last week. His performance, including a 15-yard scoring run and a 33-yard burst to set up a field goal, attracted Rollins' attention.
“He’s 5-9, 205 with a thick build and low to the ground," Rollins said. "He’s very explosive. He can make great cuts inside the hole and outside with the ability to take it the distance.”
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On defense, tackle Jeremiah Caine (6-2, 295) and end Ronnie Thomas (6-3, 235) anchor a physical front. Rollins said linebacker and leading tackler Deion Reed “plays well with his hands and makes tackles on both sides of the line of scrimmage.” Reed is a Louisiana native who played at Richwood High School in Monroe.
MVSU quarterback Conor Regan is 21 of 44 for 155 yards in two games, but Dancy said he’s considering changes at quarterback and other positions. He’s also hoping to get a handful of players back who missed last week’s game.
“We’ll look at personnel changes and quarterback and other positions as well,” Dancy said. “We had three or four guys that didn’t play because they were hurt or for other reasons.
“We’re going to get there. No way I’m counting this team out. We played two good FCS opponents. We won’t quit. I won’t quit.”