Nothing is easy in the Southwestern Athletic Conference football, certainly not for Southern as it tries to lock down a division title and perhaps more.
The final two weeks of the Jaguars’ season start with one of their more spirited rivalries when they travel north Saturday to take on Jackson State at 2 p.m. at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Jackson, Mississippi.
The West Division title likely will come down to the Bayou Classic clash in two weeks for Southern (6-4, 4-1) but this week’s game is good preparation. Jackson State is making a late-season surge and has an outside shot at the East Division title, and this game usually brings out the best in programs even when there’s nothing on the line.
“It’s pretty heated,” said Southern defensive tackle Dakavion Champion, a senior who has been through three previous meetings with the Tigers. “It’s about the same as when we play Grambling. I remember we went to their stadium as a freshman, and it was pretty hectic.
“I expect them to come out, play hard and try to beat us. They still have something to play for as well.”
JSU (4-6, 3-2) has won three of its past four under first-year head coach John Hendrick, who coached the Tigers’ final three games last year as an interim hire. He’s been around the SWAC long enough to know both sides bring everything into this game.
“As the kids say, it’s going to be off the chain,” said Hendrick, who has also coached at Southern, Alabama State and Arkansas-Pine Bluff in his 36-year career. “Our people travel, their people travel. Their people want to outdo ours, and ours want to outdo theirs. I’m expecting it to be raucous and high-level. The atmosphere is going to be college football 101. You can’t get a room in Jackson. Let’s go."
Southern seems to have established its offensive identity behind the play of quarterback Ladarius Skelton and his ability to run the triple option. The Jaguars are the SWAC’s top rushing team and also the leaders in run defense. With Skelton keeping, handing off to Devon Benn or pitching to Jamar Washington, Southern has been able to control games and wear down opponents.
Southern leads the SWAC with 224.9 yards rushing per game.
The defense will face an offense much like Southern’s, more run-oriented with five backs rushing for at least 275 yards this season. But the Tigers are also evolving in the passing game. Freshman Jalon Jones made his first start last week and completed 13 of 19 passes for 220 yards and three touchdowns. He ran for a fourth and had 130 yards on the ground.
“The perimeter running game is something you have to defend with him out there,” Southern coach Dawson Odums said. “He can change the game with his legs.”
It’s not just Jones. Keshawn Harper and Jordan Johnson have combined for 1,014 yards and seven touchdowns, with Jones adding 306 in his until-now limited appearances. Jackson State (425) is second only to Southern (433) in rushing attempts and is averaging 194.1 yards per game.
“Coach has been preaching they want to run the ball: quarterback, running backs, wide outs,” Champion said. “They want to run the ball.”
That might be a break for Southern’s defense, which has struggled against the pass, allowing 276.4 per game, ninth in the league. Jackson State hasn’t been prolific passing team with 204.4 yards per game and a 53.3 completion percentage, but with Jones it has been on the upswing.
Southern will likely be depending on its offense to help the defense by possess the ball and keep Jones on the sidelines.
“Ladarius is hitting his stride, getting better at the right time,” Odums said. “His preparation has improved tremendously in November. No one has really stopped us, we’ve stopped ourselves. It’s about executing on third down and the red zone. Those are the areas where your quarterback has to be locked in.
“The added dimension of quarterback runs improves your running game. When you are running the ball you are keeping the other offense off the field. That’s why Jackson went to the run, to keep the scores down.”
Overall, Odums likes the way his team has improved and responded to their task.
“Our guys understand it’s late November,” he said. “It’s all on the table; there’s no reason for you not to be ready to play your best football.”