On a night when Southern’s defense turned in a dominant performance against Jackson State, Demerio Houston’s ballhawking and kick return skills had the Jaguars rolling early.
Houston had two long punt returns and a fumble return for a touchdown, all in the first half, as Southern took a three-touchdown lead at halftime of its 41-7 blowout of the rival Tigers on Saturday night at A.W. Mumford Stadium.
As Jackson State’s only score coming on a punt return, Southern’s defense pitched a practical shutout.
“Demerio Houston almost got in the box a couple of times (on punt returns), but it set up short fields for us,” Southern coach Dawson Odums said.
The punt returns were a welcome sight for Odums and Houston, who has gone through entire games without a punt return opportunity. Saturday against Jackson State, he got one after the Tigers were forced to punt on their first possession of the game.
Jackson State’s Christian Jacquemin got off a 53-yard punt, but Houston returned it 36 yards to the JSU 29. That set up a four-play drive capped by Ladarius Skelton’s 15-yard run for Southern’s first touchdown.
“It felt great to actually get some returns and give my offense good field position,” Houston said.
Houston got another chance early in the second quarter after Southern forced Jackson State to punt from its 13. Jacquemine booted a 44-yard punt, but Houston brought it back 29 yards to the JSU 23.
This time, Southern faltered at the JSU 16. Martell Fontenot’s 33-yard field-goal attempt skimmed wide off the right upright, but Houston had served notice he would be a factor on punt returns.
“If you can keep (Jackson State) inside the 25, you figure you’ll get the ball back around the 50,” Odums said. “Our guys did a really good job of flipping the field. Demerio Houston made some big plays setting up our offense.”
Houston wasn’t done making big plays.
On Jackson State’s possession following the missed field goal, Southern linebacker Calvin Lunkins forced a fumble when he tackled Keshawn Harper after Harper caught a short pass. Houston was there to scoop up the fumble and return it down the right sideline for Southern’s third touchdown of the first half.
“I chased my man to the middle of the field and they threw the ball to the running back,” Houston said. “Calvin made a good tackle and shook the ball loose. I was there to recover, and all I saw was green grass and my blockers in front of me.”
Houston also made his presence felt in coverage. He finished the game with four tackles and had two pass breakups — numbers that didn’t surprise Houston, given how well Southern’s defense clamped down on JSU’s running game.
“I expected it,” Houston said. “Of course, they’re going to go through the air when our front seven is doing so well at stopping the run. When that happens, I’ve got to expect they’re going to come at me sometimes.”
The individual numbers were good for Houston, but the impact on the entire team was greater.