Hiding in plain sight in Southern’s game against Arkansas-Pine Bluff on Saturday was quarterback Austin Howard’s true value to his team.
It was the first of his five touchdown passes that showcased Howard’s greatest asset. Forget about the throw — an in-stride seed to a streaking Jamar Washington — and appreciate the process that made it look so easy.
“It’s amazing,” said senior running back Herb Edwards. “This guy is like a walking playbook on the field with you.”
That touchdown was the flawless execution of a plan that had been marinating for a week. Southern identified a tendency in Arkansas-Pine Bluff’s pass defense, developed a plan to exploit it and trusted its senior quarterback to get the job done.
“He recognized it, he saw it, he was prepared for it,” quarterbacks coach Matt Leone said.
Southern noticed that when facing a twins formation — featuring two receivers split out wide to the same side of the field — Pine Bluff would almost always show two high safeties and then, after the snap, drop one of the safeties down and “roll” into a cover 3 — a zone defense where one player is responsible for each deep third of the field.
By knowing what type of coverage Pine Bluff would likely be in before the snap, Southern also knew which type of route combinations would exploit the weakness in the zone.
Southern practiced for this possibility all week. It lined up in a twins formation with two tight ends and Washington serving as the inside wide receiver, then attacked the Cover 3 with four vertical routes.
The key was for the tight end on the twins side of the formation to run his route toward the opposite sideline, drawing the safety who is responsible for the deep middle, away from Washington’s side of the field.
In order for the play to be successful, Howard would first need to correctly identify that Pine Bluff was indeed in a cover 3.
“He knew that safety was going to roll based on linebacker alignment,” Leone said.
Said Howard, “Coach Leone preached the whole time, ‘They’re going to roll, they’re going to roll to Cover 3,’ and that’s exactly what they did.”
Howard knew where he was going to go with the ball, but he had to set it up. He stared down the left side of the field where the two tight ends were, drawing the safety toward the left hash.
By the time he snapped his head back to the right, Washington had cleared the other safety — who had dropped down to cover a zone closer to the line of scrimmage — and was sprinting wide open behind the Pine Bluff secondary.
“I knew Jamar would pop open because it popped open all week in practice,” Howard said. “We hit it all week in practice and hit it in the game.”
The sum of Howard’s preparation, recognition and execution was a 63-yard touchdown, Southern’s longest of the season.
“He understands the game,” Leone said. “He’s really off the charts. … He understands his role, he understands everybody else’s role, he understands what the defense is trying to do to him.”
That play illustrates why Southern struggled when Howard was forced to miss two games with a knee injury earlier this season. The Jaguars offense was essentially playing without its brain.
That put coach Dawson Odums in a tricky spot when trying to navigate Howard’s injury. The initial diagnosis was that Howard would need 4-6 weeks to fully heal.
“It was kind of hard there in the middle (of the season),” Odums said. “We tried to do a good job of allowing him to play even though he wasn’t 100 percent.”
Though Howard was clearly limited physically, Southern needed his ability to process information on the field.
Now though, Odums pegged Howard’s health at “97, 98 percent,” news that was not happily received by Prairie View A&M coach Willie Simmons.
Howard has shredded Simmons’ defenses for 572 yards and 7 touchdowns in two meetings.
“Coach Odums has had a tough task of trying to preserve him for this stretch of the season, but obviously he’s done a really good job because he’s starting to get healthy, it seems, at the right time,” Simmons said. “For our defense, it’s unfortunate he’s healthy now, because he is probably the best pure passer in the league.”