Southern University football coach Dawson Odums opened his weekly Tuesday news conference declaring everyone knows what time of year it is.
Odums specified it as “last one in October,” but the elephant in the room suggested it’s “Alcorn State time.”
The Jaguars (4-3, 3-0) and Braves (5-2, 3-0) have been cruising toward this showdown since their meeting in last year’s SWAC title game, won the Braves. They are the last of the unbeatens in league play but the game carries particularly heavy implications for the Jaguars, who have dropped eight of the past nine meetings since Odums became coach.
Kickoff is set for 2 p.m. at Spinks-Casem Field in Lorman, Miss.
The game creates an annual surge of paranoia in Jaguar nation. Odums has experience success against every other team in the league but Alcorn, going 46-9 against the other eight. No matter the outcome, the teams could play a rematch in the title game for the second straight year if both win their divisions.
“Our guys understand what we need to do,” Odums said. “It’s all about going out there and doing it. They’re five time defending East champions. They’ve been to the Celebration Bowl. They have a championship pedigree.
“They’ve been deeper than us. You can wear a team down that way. We’re not far off. We can play with anybody. It’s about coming with the right mindset, accepting the challenge. You have to bring that heart with you. Our guys understand that, this senior class.”
Senior center Jaylon Brinson was around for the Southern victory in 2016 but has tasted defeat four times. He wouldn’t admit to having any special motivation while acknowledging this might be his last try.
“It’s just like any other week,” he said. “We know what’s at stake. They’re a great team and we want to be prepared for everything they bring.
“Yes, that’s (lack of success) definitely in your mind as a senior playing your last year. We respect them and we know what we have to do. Everybody brings their best against the Jags.”
Odums is stoking his team to bring its best but has yet to identify which of his quarterbacks will start. Bubba McDaniel threw for 252 yards and three touchdowns off the bench last week and Odums is considering starting him instead of Ladarius Skelton, who started all seven this season. Skelton tapped out sick in the second quarter of last week’s game against Texas Southern.
“Both guys got reps with the ones (at Tuesday’s practice),” Odums said. “It will be a gut feeling based on the evaluation throughout this week’s practices. I don’t know if we’ll know a starter until right before kickoff. Both guys should prepare as if they are the starter.”
The same thing is happening on the other side. Alcorn has been led by junior Felix Harper for the past three weeks after 2018 SWAC Offensive Plyer of the Year Noah Johnson suffered a shoulder injury in a loss to McNeese State. Harper, who is more of a passer than a runner, has thrown for 1,279 yards and 18 touchdowns with only two interceptions.
Alcorn coach Fred McNair said Johnson’s status would be a game time decision.
Regardless of who takes snaps, the Jaguars are facing the class of the SWAC. Alcorn leads the league in scoring defense (20.9 points per game) and total defense (328.4) and are third in scoring offense (33.7).
Niko Duffey and De’Shawn Waller have combined to rush for 775 yards and seven touchdowns in support of Harper. HBCU All-American linebacker Solomon Muhammad leads the defense.
Odums said like the past meetings, the game will be won in the trenches. Southern has improved both of its fronts, which has helped them lead the league in run defense, allowing 122.4 yards per game. The Braves aren’t far behind in second place at 132.7.
“We didn’t stop the run Saturday, so it’s back to the drawing board,” Odums said after Southern allowed Texas Southern 181 yards rushing. “In the past (vs. Alcorn) it’s in the trenches. They’ve probably had a slight advantage in O-line vs. D-line. Is that an advantage this year? Saturday is going to tell. We beefed up our defensive line. This is a challenge game and some guys have to accept the challenge.”
Odums said defensive end Jordan Lewis is questionable as he recovers from microsurgery on one of his pinkie fingers. Lewis missed last week’s game and will be evaluated throughout the week. He’s a key part of the Jaguars’ pass rush.
“Hopefully we get him back Saturday,” Odums said. “He was out there this morning running around. Hopefully we can get some contact on him tomorrow or Thursday to see if he’s ready to go.”
Odums kidded with Lewis about his toughness. Lewis will wear special padding to protect his hand if he plays.
“I told him it’s a sign of weakness if you pad it up,” Odums said. “Back in the day you just go play, no tape, nothing. Now you got to brace it, wrap it three or four times, sponge it and pray, and hope some healing takes place. He’ll be all right.”