Southern fans should immediately forget the high-wire act that their football team has become and count their blessings because quarterback Ladarius Skelton appears to have found his mojo.
The Jaguars needed a career night by Skelton to subdue an Alabama A&M team that ran out of time in Southern’s 35-31 victory. Skelton accounted for 436 yards and four touchdowns and the Jaguars needed every yard and every point with the defense getting torched.
It was the third consecutive victory in which Southern needed a late fourth quarter touchdown or defensive play to secure the victory. Skelton’s performance bodes well for the Jaguars repeating as SWAC West champs. They can clinch the title with a victory at Jackson State in two weeks, provided Grambling loses to Alcorn State next Saturday. Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Prairie View and Texas Southern have all been eliminated.
“If he continues to play like that we’re going to be successful,” coach Dawson Odums said. “The go-ahead touchdown, after listening to him on the headset, these are the things we work on. To see the execution in that pressure moment let me know we had the right guy back there today. We’re glad to have the right guy back. It was because of how well he prepared.”
Skelton fired a 2-yard touchdown pass to Hunter Register with 28 seconds left for the winning score. It was a check-down play with Jamar Washington, the primary receiver, in the right flat. Register was set to run a corner pattern but sat down in the open area when two defenders closed on Washington. Register was alone in the back of the end zone for his second touchdown catch of the game.
“I saw how they were playing so I slow played it,” said Register, who caught seven passes for 95 yards. “When they cleared out I was open.”
Skelton was hot from the start. Before the first quarter had ended, he had rushed for 118 yards. Southern made some offensive adjustments, working Washington into the triple-option offense as a ballcarrier and at times a decoy. Conscious of Washington’s outside speed, Skelton often would charge up the middle for big gains or get them on keepers to the outside.
Devon Benn also benefitted on dive plays, including one he took for a 16-yard scoring run. Washington rushed for 42 yards on seven carries and caught two passes for 13 yards.
“It’s hard to defend QB runs,” Odums said. “The way we blocked, our offensive line, tight ends and receivers . ... a triple option is hard to practice for. The Wing T is the oldest but triple option has been around so long. I come from an option background. When you have a player like Ladarius Skelton who can run and pass, you have to pick which one you want to stop.”
Skelton had a season best 198 yards passing while hitting 16 of 27 throws. He was sacked four times but showed his toughness on a 6-yard touchdown run on which he was momentarily shaken up.
“I’m a soldier,” he said of bouncing up from that play to celebrate.
While the offense should get a boost from Skelton’s improvement, there is major work to be done on defense. The Jaguars were successful early in the game but Bulldogs’ quarterback Aqeel Glass got better and more unstoppable as the game went on. He threw for 355 yards and four touchdowns.
Glass threw a 60-yard touchdown pass and had a 50-yarder to set up another touchdown on plays where there wasn’t a defender in the vicinity. Southern has dealt with injuries in the secondary and has been playing some reserves such as cornerback Datrel Brumfield.
The defense might not have looked so desperate if the offense had not failed on a pair of fourth-down gambles from the Alabama A&M 1-yard line.
“We played Brumfield some at corner tonight and he played really well,” Odums said. “He had a miscommunication but he’s going to help us going down the stretch. (Tamaurice) Smith rebounded and played much better tonight. He’s as physical a corner as we’ve had. Our safeties played better tonight.
“Our run defense is probably the best it’s ever been. If we can get our pass defense better then we’re going to have a chance to be special in November.”
Southern did hold running back Jordan Bentley to 71 yards on 20 carries and had eight tackles for loss. Defensive backs accounted for three of those with aggressive play on quick screens.
The Jaguars were quiet on special teams although there were two huge plays in their favor. Punter Cesar Barajas barely got a punt off after leaping to bring down a high snap deep in Southern territory. And Kendric Jones set up the Jaguars’ game-winning drive with a 38-yard kickoff return to the Southern 45-yard line.
Southern has yet to play its best game in all phases, Odums said. But at least with Skelton apparently stepping forward, their goals aren’t simply still in play, but realistic.
“We understand we can still get what we want at the end of the road,” said linebacker Calvin Lunkins, who had 13 tackles to lead the defense. “We have to keep working hard and have faith. I like our chances.”