HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — Deaunte Mason played like an All-Southwestern Athletic Conference quarterback through the first six weeks of the season.
Alabama A&M’s senior quarterback, Mason was nearly flawless in leading the Bulldogs to a 6-0 record and near the top of all of the black college rankings.
The Bulldogs relied on their defense and running game in beating Tuskegee and Arkansas-Pine Bluff to open the season, but coach Anthony Jones unleashed Mason in A&M’s home opener against Prairie View and over the next four weeks, the former University of Kentucky transfer played the best football of his career.
Mason was named Southwestern Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Week four weeks in row while leading A&M to wins over Prairie View, Texas Southern, Grambling and Mississippi Valley State.
The 6-0 start was A&M’s best since the Bulldogs started 8-0 in 1966.
“We got it going after the first two games,” said Mason, who has accounted for 20 touchdowns, 12 passing and eight rushing. “We started hitting on all cylinders and played up to our potential. The coaches came up with a great game plan every week, and we went out and executed it and played at a high level.”
Mason and company haven’t executed nearly as well the past two games.
The problems began with a lackluster effort at home against Alcorn State.
The Braves stunned the Bulldogs 21-20 on homecoming three weeks ago as A&M turned the ball over three times. Mason threw two interceptions — his first two of the season — including one returned for a touchdown.
Then, came Saturday’s 31-13 shellacking at the hands of Alabama State in the Magic City Classic. A&M managed just more than 200 yards and hardly put up a fight after the Hornets scored late in the first half to take a 24-13 lead at intermission.
While Mason has been solid, he hasn’t been spectacular like he was during that earlier four-game stretch.
“I didn’t play up to the standards I did the previous four games,” he said. “I think we got a little relaxed, and it backfired on us.”
As a result, the Bulldogs have made it hard on themselves in their quest to return to the SWAC championship game.
A&M (6-2, 5-2) will host Southern at 1 p.m. Saturday at Louis Crews Stadium in an important conference game.
The Bulldogs need to beat the Jaguars on Saturday and Jackson State next week and have Alabama State lose one of its remaining two games to advance to the championship game next month at Birmingham.
“We didn’t want to be in that situation,” Mason said, “but that’s the hand we’ve dealt ourselves. “As long as we handle our business, whatever happens happens.”
Despite A&M’s recent troubles, Mason has had a terrific year.
He is second in the league in passing yards per game (198.9), completion percentage (61.4) and passing efficiency (141.0), third in total offense (222.1), tied for fifth in scoring with eight touchdowns and has thrown a league-low two interceptions.
“He’s a special kid,”Jones said. “He’s a special quarterback. I think he’s still the top candidate for offensive player of the year. He has let the competition catch up, but he’s still the top candidate.
“We’ve got a tough game this week, and for us to have a chance, he’s got to perform at an optimal level.”
Mason says he’ll be ready.
“I know what I have to do,” he said. “I’ve got to be more prepared coming out and execute the way I did in previous weeks.”
Southern’s defense has struggled mightily in its past two outings and that could bode well for Mason.
Arkansas-Pine Bluff quarterback Ben Anderson accounted for 370 yards in total offense in a win two weeks ago and Prairie View quarterback DeÁuntre Smiley torched the Jaguars for more than 500 yards in total offense in a 49-29 win last Saturday.
Smiley threw for 298 yards and ran for 170 and accounted for five touchdowns in the victory.
“We need to get off to a great start,” Mason said. “When we start well, we normally play well the whole game. Our confidence grows, and it makes us play harder.”
Saturday’s game is Mason’s final home game. He wants to go out a winner.
“It hasn’t hit me yet,”said Mason, when asked about Senior Day. “I’ve been thinking about it. I want it to be a memorable moment for me and my teammates. I’ve got 40-plus family members coming to the game. It’s going to be a special day.”
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