With just over four minutes left and trailing by a touchdown, Jackson State lined up to kick off to Southern.
The home crowd inside Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium was rocking — the product of 21 unanswered points that left the Tigers one score away from an improbable comeback.
The visiting fans looked deflated, and rightly so, after seeing a 28-0 lead quickly shrink. You could spot the handful of SU supporters who were standing and clapping for the kickoff.
One of them, near midfield and in a white hat, was former coach Stump Mitchell, who had long been a believer in the Jaguars.
After both of the losses that wound up costing him his job, Mitchell said he still felt his team was a few minor improvements away from success.
From his seat on Saturday, Mitchell watched the Jaguars prove him right, and the thought had to have crossed his mind: Why couldn’t you guys do this last week?
In the end, the factors that led Southern to its 28-21 win at Jackson State were pretty simple.
They hustled and played with passion, leading to game-changing moments like a kickoff return for a touchdown, a blocked punt, two forced turnovers and a 60-yard catch-and-run touchdown.
Rather than dropping easy passes, they caught those and the more difficult ones, too, helping quarterback Dray Joseph to an efficient and dynamic performance. With the assurance that his receivers would haul in his passes, Joseph never had to take the game upon his shoulders and force throws.
They blocked much better, and even though Joseph was sacked three times, he wasn’t scrambling for his life like he had against Mississippi Valley State a week earlier.
And aside from Joseph’s fumble on a run up the middle, they protected the ball and won the turnover margin for the first time this year. Even after that one turnover, they didn’t allow any points.
All the Jaguars needed was to nail down the basics, and the potential was there.
Mitchell had hoped to see that take place under his watch, and though he certainly pushed his players to get there, they just didn’t. After engineering a remarkable rebirth in just a week, that’s what Southern’s remaining coaches deserve the most credit for.
They got Southern to tighten up.
From the jump, in the first practice under interim coach Dawson Odums on Monday, there were new rules at SU. No more walking, helmets must stay on throughout practice, execute the fundamentals.
Without Mitchell, there was also more need — and more room — for the full staff to be vocal and hands-on, and players credited that Odums-led change in atmosphere with getting them turned around and prepared for Saturday’s win.
It’s amazing what a few simple changes can do.
This wasn’t quite an offensive revival or play-calling masterpiece, although there were very encouraging moments in both of those aspects. Late in the game, when SU’s offense stalled and JSU’s opened up, it was evident that without those early special teams plays, the Jaguars would have been in big trouble.
And if they had turned the ball over or dropped crucial passes down the stretch, they would have given the Tigers more chances.
Where the SU teams of prior weeks likely would have collapsed, this group did not.
Southern finally put together the nuts and bolts, rewarding its fans by pulling out a gut-wrenching win.
There’s still plenty of work to do — like limiting penalties and finishing strong in the fourth quarter — but if the Jaguars keep improving from the ground up, they just might end up looking like the team Mitchell had hoped for.