Southern wraps up SWAC West title

The Southern football team is heading back to Houston.

Thanks to Alcorn State’s 50-35 victory Thursday night against Prairie View, Southern clinched the Southwestern Athletic Conference Western Division title and earned a spot in the league championship game Dec. 7 at Houston’s Reliant Stadium. It’ll be the Jaguars’ first appearance in the title game since 2004 (a 40-35 loss to Alabama State), and they’ll be seeking their first crown since ’03.

But first things first: At 1 p.m. Saturday, Southern (5-4, 5-2) visits Alabama State (6-3, 6-1) at the new ASU Stadium in Montgomery. Alabama State is one of the more complete teams the Jaguars will face all season, and a rematch in Houston wouldn’t be a stretch.

“We’re going up a very good Alabama State football team,” Southern coach Dawson Odums said Tuesday. “I went to sleep, and (running back Malcolm Cyrus) had the ball. I woke up, and (running back Isaiah Crowell) had the ball. I drive in to work, and it just seems like those guys are everywhere.”

The Hornets (6-3, 6-1) are coming off a 48-14 loss to Southeastern Conference foe Kentucky.

“They were a little bit too much for us,” said coach Reggie Barlow, an ASU alum and newly selected member of the SWAC Hall of Fame. “I thought some of our kids did win some one-on-one battles throughout the game, but overall they were just a little bit too much for us.”

One battle the Hornets did win was when Crowell’s name was called last week. The former University of Georgia running back tallied 84 yards on 12 carries, including a 32-yard touchdown scamper, outracing Wildcats defenders down the sideline for the score.

When Crowell is not dragging defenders for extra yardage or outracing them down the sideline, backup and equally talented Cyrus carries the weight of the offense. In the Hornets’ two games before Kentucky, in which Crowell was limited while nursing an ankle injury, Cyrus stepped up, racking up 379 rushing yards against Prairie View and Alabama A&M — the conference’s No. 1 rush defense.

“Everybody knows about Crowell and what he brings to the table,” Barlow said. “He’s a big guy that can run for power and can also run for speed. And Cyrus, although not as big as Crowell, but he runs just as hard. (Cyrus) is a slasher, and catches the ball well out of the backfield.”

Barlow added that he does little policing in terms of rotations for his star backs: The players dictate who is in and who needs a breather.

One of the key components contributing to the Hornets’ dynamic backfield is the game management of sophomore quarterback Daniel Duhart.

“(Duhart) does a good job managing the game and getting us into the right running plays,” Barlow said. “He’s just a sophomore, and he passes the ball really well. I think the sky is the limit with him.”

Alabama State was hampered by penalties against the Wildcats last week, as they have been all year long, committing 11 penalties for 90 yards.

The Hornets have been flagged 97 times this season at 94.8 yards per game, which puts them dead last in the country, among 122 Football Championship Subdivision school, with 10.78 infractions per contest.

“Yes, it bothers me,” Barlow said. “I’m printing up papers that I’m putting up all over the complex about no penalties. Sometimes you have to overemphasize it, and we’ve been doing that. But for some reason, guys are not playing as smart as we would like them to.”

Defensively, the Hornets feature the league’s best pass rush with 41 sacks — 16 more than the next-closest team in the conference, with four players who have five or more sacks or more.

“(Defensive coordinator Kevin) Ramsey has an aggressive, combative scheme,” Barlow said. “He does a great job of putting guys in position to make plays.”

As for Saturday’s contest, Barlow recognizes the talent level the opposition possesses.

“I have great respect for the Southern program and how they do things there,” Barlow said. “I have respect for the caliber of athletes they have there. (Quarterback Dray Joseph) completes a high percentage of his passes. Lee Doss is an outstanding player — very explosive. They can score on anybody.

“It’ll be a challenge for us to try and contain those guys.”