For the second straight week, the Southern football team faces an opponent positioned atop the Southwestern Athletic Conference’s Eastern Division and fighting to earn a berth in the league title game.
The Jaguars no longer have a shot at reaching the postseason or even at their first winning season in three years.
But interim coach Dawson Odums said Tuesday at his weekly media luncheon that Southern won’t lack for motivation. Saturday’s game against Alabama State at A.W. Mumford Stadium is a chance to send the team’s seniors out with a win in their final appearance at home.
“It’s been awhile since we tasted victory,” Odums said. “The way they’re practicing every week and the way they’re coming out and playing, it will be exciting for the seniors to walk off the field in their last home game with a victory.”
Southern (3-6 overall, 2-5 in the conference) looks to end a three-game losing streak and enter two weeks of preparation for the Bayou Classic with some momentum.
Alabama State (6-3, 6-2) has much more on the line in its final game of the SWAC schedule.
The Hornets can win the Eastern Division by beating Southern and having Jackson State (5-4, 5-2) lose either to Alabama A&M (7-2, 6-2) on Saturday or to Alcorn State a week later. Alabama State owns the head-to-head tiebreaker with A&M but lost to Jackson State.
When they faced a reeling Southern team in Montgomery, Ala., late last season, the Hornets were in a similar spot.
They could have punched their ticket to the SWAC title game by beating Southern and having A&M lose to Jackson State. A&M lost its game, but the Jaguars won a 26-23 thriller to keep Alabama State from winning a division title.
“We just didn’t get it done because we just weren’t dialed in,” Alabama State coach Reggie Barlow said during the SWAC teleconference this week. “We were thinking about all the external things that had nothing to do with our game.”
Barlow said he and his coaching staff have made a point to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
“It will be hard not to wonder what’s going on, but those are things (scores of other games) that we talk about removing,” he said. “That’s mental clutter: things that you have no control over, things that have nothing to do with our game.”
Judging by Southern’s performance at A&M last weekend, Alabama State would be wise to stay focused on the task at hand.
The Jaguars roared back from a 10-0 halftime deficit to take a seven-point lead against an opponent looking to stay tied with Alabama State atop the East standings. A number of missed opportunities allowed the Bulldogs to escape with the 24-23 win in overtime, but Odums left the disappointing loss encouraged by his team’s effort.
“I was happy with the way the guys competed and fought for four quarters,” he said.
Quarterback Dray Joseph stayed hot behind center, passing for 148 yards and two touchdowns. Running back Sylvester Nzekwe had his second straight 100-yard game, the kind of effort the Jaguars lacked in going the first seven games without a 100-yard rusher.
The defense held SWAC rushing leader Kaderius Lacey to 81 yards on 21 carries and pitched a second-half shutout until A&M’s final possession of regulation.
Issues in the kicking game were the one glaring negative.
Kicker Matthew Hill had two field goals blocked, then pushed an extra point wide right after Southern scored to take a 23-17 lead in overtime. The missed PAT proved to be the difference in Southern’s third loss by six points or less.
Odums said freshman Greg Pittman, sidelined in recent weeks with a groin injury, will have a chance to unseat Hill during practice this week.
Pittman is 1-for-3 on field goals and also 1-for-3 on extra points. Hill is 4-for-8 and 16-for-17.
“Those guys are going to compete for the job this week,” Odums said. “We’re going to see which one puts it through the uprights the most.
Odums said the Jaguars understand what is at stake for their opponent Saturday and realize they must match the intensity.
“We expect to get a great effort from them, but we also expect to give a great effort,” Odums said. “It’s our last home game here at Mumford Stadium, so we think our guys will be fired up and ready to go.”
Military personnel, veterans, police officers and firefighters will receive a $10 discount on general admission tickets for Saturday’s game. Tickets can be purchased at the Southern ticket office inside the F.G. Clark Activity Center.
The discounted ticket prices are part of Southern’s “Heroes Day” promotion.