Southern's football season turned around when Ladarius Skelton became the starting quarterback.
The Jaguars defense, meanwhile, has been solid and improving throughout.
Even in the Jaguars' only loss in Southwestern Athletic Conference play, a 20-3 defeat at Alcorn State on Sept. 29, the Southern defense did its job, holding the explosive Braves to 13 points and forcing three turnovers. Alcorn scored one of its touchdowns on an interception return and led only 3-0 at halftime.
Southern allowed only two touchdowns the next three weeks, sparking the five-game winning streak it carries into the SWAC Championship Game against Alcorn at 3:30 p.m. Saturday.
While Alcorn has dominated teams with its league-leading defense, the Jaguars are not far behind. Southern is ranked third in the SWAC in yards allowed (358 per game) and scoring defense (24.0 points).
Defensive coordinator Trei Oliver said incremental improvement has his unit playing its best ball.
“The biggest thing is communication,” Oliver said. “The guys have put in more time by themselves studying film and watching teams and tendencies. Adjustments don’t bother us any more. Guys know where they fit, whether the help is inside or outside.
“We’re playing better and the numbers are a little better than they have been. Not to disrespect them, but we have no-name guys. We play so many guys. They bought in; they really care about each other. They’re not selfish. They understand, ‘I've just got to do my job.’ Guys are consistent being where they’re supposed to be and consistent doing what they are supposed to do.”
Leading the way is linebacker Calvin Lunkins, a Warren Easton graduate who piled up 15 tackles in the Bayou Classic, including 2½ for loss and 1½ sacks. His move from the weakside (Will) linebacker spot to the middle (Mike) position is one of the tweaks that has solidified the defense.
“We made a couple of adjustments with the linebackers and DBs,” Lunkins said. “We got better every week and tried to work hard after the loss at Alcorn.
“I’ve been watching more film to get tendencies of what the offense is doing. I’m a smarter player. I started season at Will and moved to Mike. I played Mike in (high school). It was easy to transition. Me and Caleb Carter — that’s a lot of speed on the field for the offense to matchup.”
Oliver said Lunkins' improvement stands out on game film.
“We just got out of a staff meeting where we saw Calvin miss two tackles against Alcorn in the first game,” Oliver said. “Coach Odums looked at me and said, ‘No, he’s making those now.’ He’s developed. We talk about being a championship-caliber team — and for me, being a champion, you have to repeat your performance week in and week out, day in, day out. He’s done that, gotten better every week.”
Improved depth has gotten more players involved and contributing. Six players have interceptions, and nine have sacks.
The Jaguars have picked off 10 passes and have eight fumble recoveries to give the team a plus-4 turnover margin. Jakoby Pappillion leads the team with three interceptions, and freshman end Jordan Lewis has been a force as a pass rusher. He had two sacks against Grambling to extend his SWAC lead to 11.
At least one Alcorn player has noticed.
“Their front seven is really good,” Alcorn quarterback Noah Johnson said. “They’re doing some of the same stuff from the first game. We’ve got to do better with the passing game. If we come out and play our game, we’ll be fine.”
Johnson struggled some in the first meeting, hitting 13 of 22 passes for 138 yards and throwing two interceptions. But the Braves' running game put up 243 yards, led by Johnson, P.J. Simmons and De’Shawn Waller.
Still, Oliver is worried about the effect a player like Johnson can have after watching former Alcorn quarterback Lenorris Footman.
“He’s beating people with his legs,” Oliver said of Johnson. “You have to stop him from running the ball. He’s an adequate passer. He’s like another running back there. When I saw Footman leave, I was excited. Then you see this guy and it's Footman No. 2.”
Waller and Simmons can’t be ignored. Those two plus Johnson have combined for 2,396 yards and 23 touchdowns rushing.
“They’re very shifty,” Lunkins said. “They’ve got good vision and patience. We’ve got to contain them.”
The 6th Man Club will sponsor a trip to Lorman, Mississippi, for Saturday's SWAC title game. The cost is $125. For information, call Gail Ray at (225) 356-5252, Anna Jones at (225) 907-7212, Freddie Green at (225) 421-6637 or Elijah Wilkinson at (225) 355-9249.
The SU Quarterback Club is also sponsoring a bus trip. The cost is $100. For information, call Reginald Jarvis at (225) 939-5906.