A lot could have gone wrong Saturday.
Southern is in the middle of a stretch of the schedule that has the Jaguars playing two games in a month. Grambling and the Bayou Classic is just over the horizon, demanding attention for the biggest game of the year. Arkansas-Pine Bluff is a one-win team that’s come dangerously close to playing upset in recent weeks.
SU coach Dawson Odums feared if he didn’t get his players going from the start, a month’s worth of building momentum for a Southwestern Athletic Conference title contention slip away over the course of a single night.
A lot could have gone wrong. Nothing ever did in a 56-24 rout that sets up a Bayou Classic to remember: Southern and Grambling will play Nov. 24 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome with the SWAC's West Division and a spot in the SWAC championship on the line.
From the first play from scrimmage Saturday, Southern was in complete control of the game. Timothy Thompson nabbed his first career interception off UAPB quarterback Skyler Perry. Six plays later, Jarmarquezza Mims was dancing in the end zone with a SU lead.
On the ensuing kickoff, Benjamin Harris forced a fumble on the return, picked up by kicker Cesar Barajas. The Jaguars needed a single pass from Ladarius Skelton to Randall Menard to find the end zone a second time within the first four minutes of the game.
The rest was easy.
“All we talked about all week was dominating versus winning,” Odums said. “Trying to challenge our guys to take the next step in November. When you get a team that hasn’t won, you don’t know the psyche of the team. We were trying to find out if they were locked in and did a lot of different things as far as our mindset and just really looking to get them to not overlook an opponent.”
With the gears already in motion from the start, Southern’s offensive improvement over the past two months came to a head on Saturday night.
Wanting to prove Skelton was more than just a runner, the Jaguars planned from the start to slice their way through the young Pine Bluff secondary.
The result became Skelton’s best performance. He completed 12 of 15 passes for a career-high 283 yards and four touchdowns before halftime. Skelton completed seven balls for more than 15 yards, including three of his touchdowns.
He would have had another passing score of 75 yards if tight end Jeremias Houston hadn’t been tripped up just shy of the goal line.
Skelton was not made available to the media after the game.
“It was him proving he can throw too,” Menard said. “We hear a lot that all he can do is run. But he proved himself tonight that he can throw too.”
Southern didn’t bother putting Skelton back on the field in the second half with a 42-9 lead at the break.
John Lampley finished out the game with a perfect 4-for-4 performance that included a 20-yard touchdown pass to Kendall Catalon.
With the game well in hand, Christopher Chaney broke off a 43-yard touchdown run at the end of the third quarter to push Southern to 56 points, the second-most it has had under Odums.
Odums said Southern barely scratched the surface on its game plan for Saturday, leaving several new wrinkles in the Jaguars' back pocket for the Bayou Classic.
"We had a lot of stuff we wanted to run if we needed it that we practiced for two weeks that we'll just keep it in our back pocket," Odums said.
Rotating in most of its back ups at that point, Southern allowed UAPB a pair of late touchdowns that ultimately had little effect on the outcome.
UAPB’s offense was hampered by the absence of the SWAC’s leading rusher, running back Taeyler Porter, who was declared inactive just before the game.
“The brotherly bond is getting strong. We’re getting more comfortable with each other,” linebacker AJ Palomino said. “We know our brothers have our back. We can play more fluid.”