For three quarters, Southern University played like a team worthy of a championship, overcoming two leads and a mixed bag of adversity along the way.
But the Jaguars couldn’t put the finishing touches on an upset victory and watched Alcorn State walk away with a 37-28 victory in the SWAC Championship Game Saturday in Lorman.
There would be no 20th conference title for the proud Southern program. No trip to the Celebration Bowl Dec. 15 vs. North Carolina A&T and no victory celebration on the field.
The Jaguars did make a statement that those days could be coming in the near future.
A team with only nine seniors showed marked improvement over the bottom half of the season. There’s no better indicator than the way Southern played compared to its only other conference loss to Alcorn when the Braves held the Jaguars to 139 yards in a 20-3 loss in Baton Rouge.
This time Southern pushed the Braves to the limit.
“Yeah, we lost the game and it didn’t come out the way we wanted it to,” Southern coach Dawson Odums told his players. “But they didn’t predict us to be there anyhow. Because of your work on the journey, you were rewarded with an opportunity to play for a championship. For that you can be proud of your achievement as an individual in this football program.
“We came up short. Believe me we wanted it. We wanted to play better than we did the first time, and I thought we did. Offensively, we gave ourselves a chance to win.”
Not just offensively. The Jaguars showed heart, erasing a 14-7 lead in the first half and then scoring on back-to-back possessions to take a 28-27 lead in the third quarter. During the latter run, the defense finally, if temporarily, shut down the explosive Braves to give the offense a chance. Southern’s defense came up with three three-and-out series in the third quarter in support of two short LaDarius Skelton TD runs.
But that was it. Alcorn reasserted itself behind quarterback Noah Johnson with a field goal drive and when Skelton injured an ankle on the next series, the offense stalled. Johnson then clinched it with another touchdown drive capped by De’Shawn Waller’s 14-yard TD run.
“When this team needs a play to be made, he can make it with his feet or arm,” Odums said of Johnson. “We’ve seen it. He’s the best player in our conference. It’s the reason they’re in first place and we had to come up here. You have to control him if you are going to beat them. He’s the one that makes it work.”
Skelton was injured on the first snap after Alcorn took a 30-28 lead. Although John Lampley stepped in for the next four plays and completed a 29-yard pass to Jeremias Houston, he couldn’t get Southern any closer than the Alcorn 32. Skelton returned after having his ankle re-taped and threw incomplete on fourth down.
On the clinching touchdown drive, Johnson converted two third-down plays when the Jaguars had a chance to make a stop, once with a 7-yard run and another with a 5-yard pass. He rushed for 147 yards and passed for 135.
Southern still had life with 3:47 left but a hobbled Skelton was sacked twice and threw an incompletion, forcing them to punt. The Jaguars didn’t get the ball back.
“Defensively, we gave up some big plays but they’re a good offense,” Odums said. “There’s a reason they are the No. 1 offense and defense in the conference. You’ve got to play. They don’t beat themselves.
“We had better fits (defensively in second half). We switched the defense up on them a little bit. Took away something we thought they were trying to attack. The guys tackled well, played with some energy. It was a one possession game at half time. We knew we’d have to make a run.”
The run fell short in the short term, but Odums likes what he sees when he peers into the future. The Jaguars lose only four starters, none of them on offense.
With a full year to train, condition, mature and learn the playbook, Skelton, a sophomore, could be next year’s Noah Johnson. He ran for three touchdowns and threw for a fourth while totaling 259 yards in his sixth start.
Odums was highly complimentary of his nine seniors, whom he praised for helping Southern get to the title game. For the rest of the squad, he laid out the message for 2019.
“You guys that are coming back, roll your sleeves up, let’s go back to work,” he said. “We’ve got to figure it out. The only thing that’s going to prevent you from feeling this way again next year is the work you put in. We put in enough work to get here, but now we’ve got to put in enough to say we deserve to be the champs in 2019.”