There was no more appropriate night than homecoming for Southern to welcome back quarterback Ladarius Skelton, at least the Skelton Jaguars fans had hoped to see since Week 1.
Skelton was there from the first snap and showed up big at the finish of Saturday’s heart-stopping 35-31 victory against Alabama A&M before 20,344 fans at A.W. Mumford Stadium.
Skelton’s 2-yard touchdown pass to Hunter Register with 28 seconds capped a career-best night as he accounted for 436 yards and four touchdowns and kept Southern (5-4, 4-1 in conference play) on the road toward the SWAC West title.
But even that late score might not have been enough had the Jaguars defense not come up with one of its few stops of Bulldogs’ quarterback Aqeel Glass and the A&M offense. Jalen Ivy sacked Glass on the game’s final play — the Jaguars’ second sack of the night — to finally seal the victory.
“I’m grateful for the win; early in the year we were on the other side of that,” Southern coach Dawson Odums said. “But this football team here, they live on the edge.”
That includes the offense, which twice failed to score on fourth-and-goal from the Bulldogs' 1-yard line and thus let the visitors hang around and make a game of it. An interception thrown by backup quarterback Bubba McDaniel on the last of his three snaps helped energize A&M and set up its first touchdown.
But Skelton kept hammering away, executing an option-heavy game plan and seemingly making every right decision whether running or passing. Skelton rushed for a career-high 238 yards and two scores and completed 16 of 25 passes for a season-best 198 yards and two TDs, both to Register.
After a season of ups and downs and sharing the job with McDaniel, Skelton appeared to stake a claim to it with a breakout performance. A 44-yard field goal by Corey Spencer gave the Bulldogs their first lead of the night with 4:20 left and Skelton responded. He drove Southern 55 yards for the winning points, keeping the drive alive with a 12-yard keeper on fourth-and-2 at the Alabama A&M 47-yard line. He also hit Register with a 20-yard throw on third-and-11 to put the ball at the Alabama A&M 4.
“It feels good, we need to consistently have more (games like this),” Skelton said afterward. “I love running the option. It opens up the passing game.
“Bubba playing doesn’t have any effect on me. I love him playing, that’s my brother. I’ll just play and keep doing what I have to do. As long as we’re winning, I’m happy.”
Southern didn’t make things easy on itself. Glass diced up the Jaguars secondary with 356 yards and four touchdowns while completing 29 of 37 passes, two each to Zabrian Moore and Abdul-Fatai Ibrahim. He moved his team nearly 50 yards in 24 seconds to position the Bulldogs for a potential game-winning score on the final play.
Ivy was part of a three-man rush and spent a frustrating night trying to get Glass on the ground. But Ivy reached over his blocker and managed to grab hold of Glass’ jersey, hanging on as he lost his footing but getting the Jaguars' biggest defensive play of the night.
“That was big for the defense,” linebacker Calvin Lunkins said. “We spent all night trying to get to the quarterback. A couple of guys stepped up.”
The news wasn’t all bad on defense. Southern held the SWAC’s second-leading rusher, Jordan Bentley, to his second-lowest out put this season, 71 yards on 20 carries.
“Pass defense. ... sometimes we’re there and sometimes not,” Odums said. “We’re not consistent. We’ve got to get better. To continue the way we’re playing it’s going to get difficult down the stretch. But we’re going to be in the ball game if they can’t run the ball.”
Southern led 14-7 at the half but Glass moved his team to a tying score on a 22-yard TD pass to Moore, capping a four-play drive. Southern answered with Skelton’s 31-yard TD pass to register, who caught seven for 95 yards.
A blown coverage led to a 60-yard scoring pass, Glass to Ibrahim, and Skelton again drove his team 75 yards to a 6-yard TD run to give Southern a 28-21 lead. Back came Glass with a 28-yard TD pass to Moore to tie the game with 8:32 left.
Southern ran the option from the first snap, an 8-yard keeper by Skelton, and swept 66 yards in four plays for the touchdown only 1 minute and 30 seconds into the game. Using wide receiver Jamar Washington as a decoy in the option game, Skelton broke off a 34-yard run and went the final 28 on a neatly executed option keeper.
The Jaguars defense stopped a fourth-down gamble by the Bulldogs thanks to a replay challenge that showed Bentley came up short on a reception at the Southern 31. The Jaguars appeared headed for another score as Skelton got loose for 18 on a designed run and 17 on a scramble.
Jarod Sims picked up six yards on fourth-and-1 at the Alabama A&M 14, but four plays later he was stopped for no gain on fourth-and-goal at the 1. Skelton just missed getting into the end zone on a third down scramble and had 118 yards on nine carries during the first two drives.
The Southern defense forced punts on its next two series but the visitors got a break after Bubba McDaniel entered the game. On his third play, he rolled right and tried to throw to the sideline but the ball went straight to Bulldogs safety Adrian Portlock who returned the ball to the Southern 29.
The Bulldogs moved inside the 10 behind the running of Bentley but on third down from the 6, Glass hit Abdul-Fatai Ibrahim with a back-shoulder throw to tie the game with 4:55 left.
Southern responded with a 71-yard march to score on Benn’s 16-yard run. Skelton had a 19-yard run and came up big with an 8-yard throw to Hunter Register to convert a third-and-4 at the Bulldogs’ 33-yard line. Skelton was sacked but made up the yardage with a 17-yard pass to T.J. Bedford. On third-and-1, Benn popped through a hole on the right side for his touchdown with 1:20 remaining.
“Ladarius Skelton played one of the more complete games in a long time,” Odums said. “His decision making, his throws. . . to finally see him put it all together again is coming at the right time. It’s been an up and down season. We told him we were going to ride with him and see how it goes. He was about as good as you could ask for.”