When Southern takes the field at 5:30 p.m. Saturday, the motivating factors are plainly defined.
For one, it’s homecoming, a game that — no matter how bleak the final record — SU hasn’t lost in the past four seasons.
It’s a chance for the Jaguars (2-3, 1-2 Southwestern Athletic Conference) to get back to the winning ways they so briefly experienced before last weekend’s loss, to keep their hopes of a SWAC title from slipping, and to better the odds that their leader, interim head coach Dawson Odums, will get a shot at that job permanently.
It’s also a showcase, an opportunity to welcome a big crowd to A.W. Mumford Stadium and put on a performance that will keep the fans coming back.
For the opponent, Texas Southern, the motivation is a bit more singular, but no less clear.
The Tigers (1-5, 1-3 SWAC) have no home crowd and — after five straight losses by a combined 154 points — not much to build on. There’s also no dream of a conference championship, thanks to a postseason ban stemming from issues with the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate.
To make matters (much) worse, more NCAA penalties were handed down to TSU this week, citing violations in 13 sports across seven years and handing the football program scholarship reductions and an additional two-year postseason ban that will last through 2014.
There’s really only one thing left for the Tigers to do.
Ruin everything for everyone else.
Southern knows the feeling well. After all, the Jaguars were in the same position a year ago with a postseason ban of their own.
“It’s real tough,” SU cornerback Virgil Williams said. “At the end of the day, you really have nothing to play for. You can say you’re still going to play, even though you don’t have a championship to play for. But when reality sets in, it’s like ... we didn’t give up, but it’s not like this year where we have a chance to go to Birmingham and bring a SWAC championship back.
“I think they’re going to have the mentality that we had last year, pretty much to play the spoilers of everyone’s dreams in the SWAC.”
Thus far, the Tigers haven’t done much spoiling.
They opened the season with a 44-41 shootout victory over Prairie View, then dropped a tough nonconference game to North Texas and fell to Jackson State, 45-35. After that, the shootouts kept coming, but TSU misfired in lopsided defeats against Alabama A&M, Sam Houston State and Alabama State, which it lost to 45-0 last week.
That has left Texas Southern with the conference’s worst defense, ranked last in scoring defense (42.8 points per game), total defense (498.5 yards) and run defense (271.5). TSU is ninth in pass defense (227).
But despite the opponent’s struggles and its own flashes of promise, Southern’s offense will come in as far from a sure thing.
Of the Jaguars’ 66 points in the past three games, 22 came via special teams or defensive plays and 20 through one-play drives, leaving 24 points from sustained possessions.
At seventh in the conference for scoring (17.4 points) and total offense (266.4 yards), SU hasn’t shown the kind of consistency that was hoped for from a veteran unit with a nice set of weapons at receiver.
That came to a head last weekend at Alcorn State, when Southern stumbled in the first half before putting up a furious comeback that ultimately fell short. While the defense gave up the final blow, the offense and special teams squandered several situations that could have made the difference.
“We thought we had an easy win,” receiver Lee Doss said. “We have to go back to playing with that chip on our shoulder. We had two big wins in a row on the road, and we just got comfortable. We have to get out of that comfort zone, and just make plays.”
Texas Southern looks the part of another easy win, but it’s best not to sleep on a squad that has nothing to lose.
If there was any doubt about TSU’s role as the spoiler, it was dashed Monday.
As part of its “Unite in White” campaign for homecoming, Southern planned to wear white jerseys and pants to match its white helmets. Because home teams traditionally don dark colors, that request had to be approved by Texas Southern.
According to SU (Tigers’ officials declined to comment), the teams’ equipment managers reached an agreement, but TSU coach and Baton Rouge native Darrell Asberry stepped in and rejected the request.
That’s the first step toward putting a damper on Southern’s homecoming, and the most important one will come on the field.
“We’re most definitely playing for pride,” TSU linebacker William Parker said. “Every time we go out on the field, we’re representing Texas Southern University. So, if for nothing else, (we want) to continue fighting and not giving up.”
Asberry said Monday that, thus far, he doesn’t feel like his players have lost motivation in the face of the postseason ban. But morale can’t last forever with nothing at stake and little success.
“Right now, this football team is in dire need of a win,” Asberry said. “Anything can happen, and I can assure you that we’ll be ready for this one.”
The Tigers are looking to crash the party, and the Jaguars will be waiting at the door.
“We don’t lose homecomings,” Southern linebacker Corry Roy said. “You never want to lose homecoming, and they beat us last year by a good margin, so we want to make a statement.”
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