In UL-Lafayette, Southern faces another FBS challenge

This idea of opening on the road against an FBS opponent deal hasn’t worked out too well for Southern the last couple of years.

The Jaguars opened the 2012 season at New Mexico and lost 66-21. They opened the 2013 season at Houston and lost 62-13.

Now comes the 2014 opener Saturday at Cajun Field in Lafayette against Louisiana-Lafayette, winner of three straight New Orleans Bowls and the favorite to win the Sun Belt Conference championship this season.

“You’ve just got to have the right mindset,” Southern wide receiver Randall Menard said. “You’re going on the road to their hometown. It’s a business trip. You’re going to take care of business.”

The Jaguars are hopeful they handle business better this year than they did in the past two openers.

New Mexico scored 38 second-quarter points on its way to a 45-6 halftime lead. Against Houston, the Jaguars pulled within 13-6 midway through the second quarter and trailed 27-6 at halftime before the Cougars pulled away.

Southern had little margin for error entering both games against teams allowed to carry 85 scholarship players, more than one third more than teams such as Southern can.

Both times, the Jaguars went well outside the margin for error. They threw two interceptions and lost two fumbles against New Mexico and threw one interception and lost three fumbles against Houston. They were minus-4 in turnovers in both games because they didn’t take the ball away in either game. They were penalized 10 times in each game.

“We’ve got to minimize the mistakes,” senior fullback Brian McCain said. “Throughout each game that I have witnessed and played in with an FBS school, it was our mistakes and our fault as far as taking that momentum away from ourselves.

“We have to be fundamentally sound, and we have to be disciplined. At the end of the day we’re playing ourselves, and the fewer mistakes we make, the better chance we give ourselves to win the game.”

In both openers, when things started to go badly for Southern, it couldn’t turn it around, and the scores got progressively more lopsided. But the Jaguars feel better equipped to prevent a repeat if things start to go badly against the Ragin’ Cajuns.

That’s because of a series of comebacks Southern made that were essential to winning the Southwestern Athletic Conference championship last season.

The Jaguars fell behind Prairie View A&M 35-13 in the third quarter, fought back to tie the score, fell behind three more times, then prevailed 62-59 in double overtime.

Southern trailed Alabama A&M 17-14 before kicking a field goal as time expired and winning 20-17 in double overtime. The Jaguars trailed Alabama State 21-7, took the lead, saw ASU tie it late then won on a field goal with 18 seconds left.

In the SWAC title game victory against Jackson State, Southern trailed 24-20 late in the third quarter before winning 34-27 in double overtime.

“We’ve been there before,” guard Anthony Mosley said. “Last year was about finishing strong. This year, let’s start fast and finish strong.”

Both teams are counting on strong running games to set the tone for their offense, the Cajuns to complement senior quarterback Terrance Broadway and the Jaguars to lessen the pressure on redshirt freshman quarterback Deonte Shorts, who’s making his college debut.

UL-Lafayette has a potent one-two punch in Preseason All-Sun Belt Conference runners Alonzo Harris, a 238-pound battering ram, and Elijah McGuire, a 5-11 game-breaker. Southern has three talented transfers — Malcolm Crockett (Pittsburgh), Jamarcus Jarvis (North Texas) and Tyre Bracken (Southern Mississippi) — pushing incumbent Lenard Tillery.

“Whichever team is able to establish the run is going to have a leg up in this football game,” Southern coach Dawson Odums said.

UL-Lafayette would seem to have a leg up at the point of attack as the average weight of its starting offensive linemen is more than 40 pounds more than that of the Jaguars’ starting defensive line (306-260).

Both defenses return most of the starters from units that started slowly but improved over the course of last season and hope to continue that improvement.

“Our guys know the kind of preparation it takes to get yourself ready for a team like this,” Odums said. “I’m eager to see how far we have come as a program. I think we’ll be able to tell real quick whether we belong on the field with them.”