LAKE CHARLES — The Southern had high hopes and plenty of momentum coming out of 2018 and into 2019. For one night it dissolved into a sea of mistakes here Saturday.
The Jaguars lost five fumbles after a decent offensive start and wasted a good defensive effort to drop their season opener against McNeese State 34-28 at Cowboy Stadium before a school-record crowd of 20,437.
The Jaguars had to like their chances with a veteran squad against a Cowboys team in transition under first-year coach Sterlin Gilbert. Southern quarterback Ladarius Skelton threw touchdown passes to Timothy Bedford and Hunter Register in the first half and the Jaguars had the advantage for a quarter and a half.
But Skelton matched his touchdowns with a pair of costly fumbles that led to Cowboys touchdowns and was replaced by backup Bubba McDaniel after one possession in the third quarter. The game unraveled for the Jaguars from there.
“You’re not going to beat anybody with five turnovers,” Southern coach Dawson Odums said. “We didn’t get any takeaways, and we were still in the ball game. That’s what’s discouraging. You can’t play like that. You’ve got to value the football.”
Odums said Skelton was not hurt and is still the starter. Skelton completed 5 of 9 passes for 104 yards and rushed for 34. McDaniel completed 11 of 19 for 135 yards. He threw one TD pass and ran for another score.
“He just wasn’t in rhythm," Odums said. "He made some good plays but he didn’t value the football, but he’ll rebound. He’ll be our quarterback. First game, but he’ll get better.
“Bubba played really well. He moved the ball, threw the ball, valued the ball. That’s big at quarterback.”
Southern fumbled six times in all, two of the turnovers came on three muffed punts. Three fumbles allowed the home team to drive 29, 13 and 36 yards for touchdowns in building a 24-14 lead in the third quarter. The Jaguars also missed a golden opportunity on their first possession when Martell Fontenot missed a 32-yard field goal wide right after a first-and-goal situation on the McNeese 5-yard line.
The Jaguars held their own defensively. The only McNeese touchdown drive longer than 36 yards came in the fourth period when Southern was gassed. Southern out-gained the home team 342-303.
“When one side of the ball is down, the other side has to pick them up,” defensive end Jalen Ivy said. “We did that today and didn’t win. But we put some good things on film and we can get better.”
McNeese quarterback Cody Orgeron, son of LSU coach Ed Orgeron, threw touchdown passes of 12 and 24 yards to Trevor Begue to erase a 14-10 Southern lead after the fumbles by Skelton, and Noah Anderson kicked a 29-yard field goal to push the lead to 27-14 in the fourth quarter.
McNeese running back Elijah Mack put the game out of reach with a 3-yard touchdown run to cap an 11-play, 76-yard scoring drive and a 34-14 lead with 5:25 remaining.
Southern came back to make the game look closer than it was when McDaniel hit Register with a 17-yard TD pass and ran 1 yard for another score with 32 seconds left. The outcome was sealed when Cesar Barajas’ attempted onside kick sailed out of bounds well down the field. Register finished with four catches for 82 yards and two touchdowns. Southern also benefitted from 16 McNeese penalties for 177 yards.
“We fought all the way to the end,” Odums said. “That’s something we can build on. We’ll re-evaluate somethings and make sure we got the right guys doing things. The defense held them to three a couple of times. They gave us a chance."
The Cowboys took the lead away from Southern to grab a 17-14 lead at halftime thanks to Skelton's first fumble. On a second-and-11 from the Jaguars 35, the ball slipped out of his hands as he raised it to pass. The ball bounced back 17 yards where Carlos Scott recovered advanced it to the 13. Three plays later, Orgeron connected with Begue on a 12-yard touchdown pass with 1:49 left in the half.
Skelton lost the ball again as Colby Richardson stripped it and recovered as Skelton fought for yardage on a run. Seven plays later, Orgeron found Begue down the sideline with a perfect throw despite good coverage by Jordan Eastling.
“The turnovers really killed us,” running back Devon Benn. “That’s one thing we harp on at practice.
Benn said the team supported Skelton after the fumbles and that he was encouraging his teammates on the sideline.
“Our motto is, 'Play the next play,' ” Benn said. “Forget what happened, out the window, good or bad, the next play.”