The stage was set for the Southern football team to score a thrilling win against rival Jackson State on Saturday night and enter an open date as the last remaining unbeaten in the Southwestern Athletic Conference race.
The Jaguars fell painfully short.
Senior quarterback Dray Joseph had tight end Bradley Coleman open for the go-ahead score with about a minute left, but the fourth-down pass into the end zone was too low for Coleman to corral.
Jackson State celebrated a 19-14 victory before 30,816 fans at A.W. Mumford Stadium, pulling even with Southern in a series that includes 58 meetings.
“We have a good football team, and we fought a good football team,” Southern coach Dawson Odums said. “We just came up short. It came down to the end, just like most of these games do, and we just came up on the wrong side of it.”
Joseph finished 19 of 28 for 246 yards as he directed the SWAC’s top passing offense against a Jackson State defense that entered the day ranked sixth nationally in total defense. But after leading the Jaguars from their 25 with 5:42 remaining, he and the Southern offense hit a snag inside the JSU 10.
On third-and-3 from the 6, Darrius Coleman was dropped for a 1-yard loss. Then came fourth down from the 7.
Joseph rushed to beat the play clock because Southern was out of timeouts, then faked a handoff and pulled up to pass. Bradley Coleman was alone running toward the back-right corner of the end zone.
“That’s a play we work on every day in practice,” Joseph said. “That’s our two-point play that we’d been practicing on.”
Had the pass found the mark and Southern (2-3) held on to win, the Jaguars would have taken another step away from the two embarrassing losses they suffered to open the season and surged to a 3-0 start in SWAC play.
Jackson State has that distinction instead.
The Tigers (3-2) moved to 3-0 and, with Alcorn State losing at Alabama State earlier in the day, are the only SWAC team with a perfect conference mark. Southern fell into a tie with Prairie View for first in the Western Division but holds the head-to-head tiebreaker with PV based on a victory over the Panthers in its home opener.
Southern will have next weekend off before returning to Mumford for a matchup with Alabama A&M on Oct. 12.
Just to give themselves a shot at sending Saturday’s big crowd home happy, the Jaguars had to battle back from a 19-7 deficit after Jackson State went on a 16-0 run to start the third quarter.
The Tigers took control of the line of scrimmage with their running game in the second half, grinding out 132 of their 190 rushing yards after intermission.
“They were able to run the ball because of what we weren’t able to do (offensively) in the first half,” Odums said. “We squandered opportunities. In order for them to get back in the game, they hung their hat on the running game. They stuck with it, they committed to the run and they got the results.”
Three plays after connecting with a diving Willie Quinn for a 43-yard gain, Joseph hooked up with Lee Doss for a touchdown on a 19-yard crossing pattern that cut the JSU lead to 19-14 with 1:47 left in the third.
Southern’s other score came on a 60-yard run by Lenard Tillery for a 7-3 lead with 2:10 left in the second quarter.
The Jaguars went to the half believing they should have had more. They moved to the JSU 25 on their second possession before failing to move the chains and settling for a Greg Pittman field goal try from 42 yards.
Later, after taking over from its 7, Southern marched into the red zone behind Joseph’s right arm. But four penalties against the Jaguars quickly turned first-and-10 from the JSU 18 into fourth-and-27 from the 35 and led to a Paul Randall Soden punt.
“I think what happens is, when we come out (and) the score is 0-0, some of the guys don’t have a sense of urgency,” Joseph said. “I think it’s the mindset that we still have four quarters, the game just started. When we’re down, I think there’s a sense of urgency that we need to score now and fast.”
Tommy Gooden had 87 yards on 21 carries to lead the Jackson State rushing game. Zach Pendleton caught five passes for 92 yards.
Ryan Griffin’s interception of Joseph with 8:43 left ended SU’s penultimate possession.
“One game doesn’t determine the kind of season that you are going to have,” Odums said. “We wanted to win this football game bad because we understand where it would have put us, but we came up short. We have to move on and play the next one.”