Southern breaks through with win over Jackson State
JACKSON, Miss. — Dawson Odums left his postgame news conference, turned left toward his locker room and nearly ran straight into Jackson State coach Rick Comegy.
Comegy offered a smile, a handshake and congratulations.
“You got them going,” Comegy said.
In his first game as Southern’s interim head coach, Odums led the Jaguars to a 28-21 win in front of 20,713 at Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium, snapping a three-game losing streak against the Tigers and reviving a team that had looked lifeless nine days before.
Chalk it up to whatever you want — a stunning loss to Mississippi Valley State, the dismissal of head coach Stump Mitchell, a refocusing effort in practice, quarterbacks coach Chad Germany calling the plays — but Southern (1-2, 1-1 Southwestern Athletic Conference) is back on the right track.
That much was clear with 30 seconds remaining, when Southern was able to let the clock run out and escape from a tense fourth quarter. With the outcome sealed, Odums’ players dumped water on him in celebration, and the contingent of Jaguars fans — which included Mitchell, who watched the game from the stands — enjoyed a cathartic release that was sure to last long into the Mississippi night.
“When I saw 40 seconds on the play clock and 30 seconds on the game clock, I was ecstatic to know that we had finally put a game together to get a victory,” Odums said. “Come on, this is for our fans. Jag Nation is going to celebrate tonight. It has been a long time since they’ve been able to celebrate a victory over Jackson State.”
Behind a surprisingly fast start spurred by special teams, Southern raced ahead 14-0 in just one minute and 17 seconds, thanks to Jaleel Richardson returning the opening kickoff for a touchdown; the defense forcing a punt; Lee Mitchell blocking it; and quarterback Dray Joseph finding Mike Berry in the end zone on SU’s first play from scrimmage.
That was the beginning of a huge night for Joseph, who finished 18 of 25 for 249 yards and three touchdowns — exactly the kind of efficient, turnover-free performance he entered the season hoping to provide.
It helped immensely that his receivers, notably Berry and tight end Rashaun Allen, held onto the ball. Berry and Allen had been two of the biggest culprits in the dropped-pass department through two games, but neither had a drop Saturday.
Berry, who finished as the game’s offensive MVP, credited their sure-handedness to Odums and a new atmosphere at practice this week.
“Coach Odums came in with a whole new attitude. The first Monday at practice changed everything for us,” said Berry, who finished as the game’s offensive MVP with 117 yards and two touchdowns on five catches. “No walking at practice, no helmets off — it was a whole new practice for us. For the first week, I won’t lie; it was hard. But it paid off in the game.”
It wasn’t perfect, but the plan worked well enough.
In the second quarter, Joseph led an 82-yard touchdown drive that he finished by hitting former Dutchtown High receiver Thomas Jackson for his first career score. Early in the second half, Berry took a short pass, shook off a tackler and went on a winding 60-yard touchdown that put Southern ahead 28-0.
The Jaguars carried that lead into the fourth quarter, when the Tigers roared to life.
Southern’s defense had been stout through three periods, forcing punts or turnovers on JSU’s first eight drives. But once the Jaguars went to a more conservative offense and had to punt three times in a row, Jackson State turned them into three touchdowns.
Backup quarterback Dedric McDonald came in and hit star wideout Rico Richardson for two touchdowns in the first six minutes of the quarter, and JSU added another score when McDonald capped a 56-yard drive with a 1-yard run.
That made it a one-score game — and an illegal block on the ensuing kickoff left Southern in a precarious position: on its 12-yard line with 4:07 left.
Joseph — who had left the game for one drive earlier when coaches wanted to get backup J.P. Douglas some reps — made a potential game-saving play when he escaped a sack and made a running, side-armed throw to Burnett King for 10 yards on third-and-2.
That kept the clock running, and after JSU spent its final timeout one play later, Southern ran it down to zeroes.
With Mitchell watching from the bleachers, the Jaguars had finally put together the cohesive performance that likely would have preserved his job in the weeks prior.
As the late near-meltdown and cringe-inducing 136 penalty yards show, it wasn’t perfect. But after hitting rock bottom in the last week, Southern is a half-game behind division leaders Arkansas-Pine Bluff (3-1, 2-1 SWAC) with a little wind in its sails.
“Like (Mitchell has) been telling people: There’s talent on this football team,” Odums said. “Coach Mitchell left me with a good football team, and I’m going to do what he had set in place. I’m just carrying on that tradition of trying to win us a SWAC championship if possible. If not, we’re going to do our best trying to get there.”