Left to lament the three close losses his team suffered over the past four weeks, Southern University football coach Stump Mitchell said he believes he’s found a few culprits.
At times this week, Mitchell has cited everything from his own play-calling to some more obvious factors, including turnovers (the team has 16 giveaways — including three interceptions that were returned for touchdowns) and low outputs in the second half (Southern’s offense has scored only three touchdowns after halftime this season, and opponents have outscored the Jaguars 30-7 in the fourth quarter).
Another big problem: third downs.
On both sides of the ball.
Offensively, Southern has converted 33 percent of its third downs, ranking sixth in the Southwestern Athletic Conference in that category.
And as well as Southern’s defense has played — the Jaguars rank fifth in the conference in scoring defense and second in pass defense — opponents have converted 44 percent of their third downs against SU.
Only one SWAC defense, Mississippi Valley State, has allowed more third-down conversions.
“Defensively, we have not produced well enough on third downs,” Mitchell said. “People are converting at too high of a rate there, and we’ve been playing some pretty good defense. But that has hurt us.”
That’s partly because of Southern’s defensive line, which has played well against the pass but is usually overmatched on the line of scrimmage. In last week’s 23-20 loss against Prairie View, the team started with a three-man front that averaged 249.7 pounds per player.
The Jaguars (2-4, 2-2 SWAC) play at Arkansas-Pine Bluff (3-3, 2-2) at 6 p.m. Saturday in a matchup of teams tied for second place in the Western Division — and the Golden Lions figure to give Southern’s defense another tough test.
UAPB averaged 172.6 rushing yards in its past five games.
Remember last season, when Mitchell constantly harped on penalties? His Jaguars finished last in the nation with 104.1 penalty yards per game.
This season, they’re better. In fact, they rank second in the SWAC at 71.1 yards per game. But Mitchell said he still wants the number lower.
During last week’s game, for instance, Southern drew seven penalties for 62 yards. But those flags often came at crucial moments. For example: in the third quarter, the Jaguars had two 15-yard penalties — one that wiped out a 59-yard punt by Manuel Canto, another that allowed PV to kick off from the 45-yard line. Those penalties had a notable effect on field position.
“We’re doing a better job of eliminating the penalties, but we need to do even better,” Mitchell said.
New faces, more running
Despite Southern’s recent struggles on offense — the offense has scored only three touchdowns in the second half this season — the Jaguars have started to achieve balance with an improved running game.
Part of that is because of the re-emergence of Sylvester Nzekwe, who has gained 236 rushing yards over the past three weeks. But the ground game has developed in part because of the offensive line, which underwent a makeover by necessity.
Injuries to guard Zach Brown, guard Aaron Hall, tackle Taylon Jones and tight end Clinton Boyd forced the team to play three more freshmen in Isaiah Webster, Donald Glover and Brandon Thibodeaux — beefy players who, as Mitchell said, are better suited to run-blocking than their veteran counterparts.
Hall (knee) and Jones (ankle) have returned, but Glover and Thibodeaux will probably continue to start.
“Now we’re going to work hard the rest of this week to become better pass blockers, but ... we’re coming downhill,” Mitchell said. “That’s what these guys can do. They’re big.”
Old rivals meet again
Saturday’s game is another rematch of old foes who go back a long, long way.
UAPB coach Monte Coleman won three Super Bowl rings as a Washington Redskins linebacker from 1979-94. Mitchell was a running back for the St. Louis/Phoenix Cardinals from 1981-89.
The Redskins were 15-3 against Mitchell’s Cardinals, but Coleman said his adversary was quite a handful.
“I never got him on the ground. I’m still waiting,” Coleman said. “No, Stump is a very good friend, and a great guy to play against. Stump gave it everything he had. ... When you go against guys that give it their all, it makes the game a whole lot better. Everybody’s out there trying to win.”
Coleman and UAPB won last year’s meeting in Baton Rouge, 41-23.
Saturday’s game at UAPB will stream live on swac.org. ... In their past six meetings, Southern and UAPB have won three games each. On their last visit to Pine Bluff, Ark., in 2009, the Jaguars made a fourth-quarter defensive stop and added a late touchdown for a 24-10 win. ... According to the National Weather Service, Saturday’s forecast for Pine Bluff calls for clear skies, with a high of 82 degrees and a low of 54. ... The team plans to leave Baton Rouge at 2 a.m. Saturday.