This season got off to a rocky start for the Southern defense, which surrendered a combined 176 points and 1,953 yards in the Jaguars’ first three games.
Yet the defense has come together as a unit over the course of the season, improving each week. In the seven games since, Southern has allowed just 191 points.
“I think we have identified what our guys can do,” Southern coach Dawson Odums said. “I think we have scaled things back to a point where our guys can just play fast and not have to think as much on the field.”
Saturday afternoon in Montgomery, Ala., the Southern defense put together what was arguably its best performance of the season, leading to a 31-28 victory.
Facing the Southwestern Athletic Conference’s most prolific rushing attack, the Jaguars limited the Hornets backfield to 202 yards rushing — a large number at first glance, but impressive considering the opponent (Alabama State averages 245.5 rushing yards per game).
A closer examination give a more telling picture of how Southern was able to limit the Hornets’ ground attack.
ASU jumped out to an early advantage, taking a 21-7 lead with just a few minutes left before halftime.
The Hornets pounded out 143 yards through the first 30 minutes, scoring on their first two drives to start the game — leading Odums to make a difficult decision in benching his starting linebackers.
“On this team, you have to meet expectations,” Odums said. “And that comes performing at a high level and performing with a lot of energy. We believe that the next guy must be ready.”
However, the group was soon inserted back into the game. It helped Southern limit ASU to just 59 yards rushing in the second half, which included a 43-yard touchdown from tailback Isaiah Crowell.
“Their defensive line was very active,” Alabama State coach Reggie Barlow said. “They started to do some slanting inside with their defensive tackles that gave us some problems. Their defensive line was playing a little bit faster and a little bit more combative than our offensive line.”
Alabama State averages 5.14 yards per carry. Southern was able to limit the Hornets to 4.1 yards per attempt Saturday.
The improvement is noticeable from the from beginning of the season, when the Jaguars allowed 372 rushing yards in their opener against FBS opponent Houston.
For senior cornerback Virgil Williams, the improvement on the defense comes as no surprise.
“We just got back to do the little things,” Williams said. “Everyone rallying to the football, wrapping up on tackles. We got everyone to buy into the vision, and everyone just play their parts to do the little things that are necessary to be a good defense.”
The Jaguars pass rush has also turned up the heat in recent weeks. The proof: Southern has racked up 11 of its 16 sacks in its past four games.
Part of that improved pass rush has been the development of junior defensive lineman Arthur Miley, who recorded two sacks Saturday.
“I’ve been waiting on those all season,” Miley said. “It’s just a great feeling. I couldn’t have done it without my teammates, though, helping to create the pressure.”
The Jaguars defense — specifically their rushing defense — will face a different test Saturday that will again gauge just how far they’ve come.
“Offensively, (Clark Atlanta) runs a Wing-T,” Odums said, “which is something I haven’t seen in 15 years of coaching.”
I think any offense that you’re trying to stop, it starts with the defensive line. It will pose a challenge to us, but if our guys just stay within the process and do the necessary things that we talk about in preparation for this team, then I think we will be all right.”