Southern didn’t need much of a running game in its 31-28 victory at Alabama State last week.
And the way things are going, it might not need much of one to keep winning.
The Southwestern Athletic Conference West Division champion Jaguars (6-4) had their second-fewest carries of the season (24) and produced their third-fewest rushing yards (55) against the Hornets. For the season, they rank last in the SWAC in rushing yards per game (86.6) and per attempt (2.7).
Over the past three games, Southern has averaged about 20 percent fewer rushes compared to the first seven.
But you don’t need to run the ball that much when you’re throwing it the way the Jaguars did against Alabama State, a game in which Dray Joseph passed for 432 yards and four touchdowns, three to Mike Jones.
“I think Alabama State’s strength was stopping the run,” Jones said of the league’s top-ranked run defense. “So we took advantage of their weakness against the pass game.”
With leading receiver Lee Doss serving a one-game suspension for an unspecified violation of team rules, Jones became the big-play receiver, gaining 211 yards on 11 catches and scoring on pass plays of 68, 74 and 13 yards.
“It’s a great feeling knowing that even without one of our best we can still be dominant,” Joseph said.
Eight Southern players caught passes as Joseph compiled his second-most yards and touchdowns in a game this season.
“They probably looked out there and saw that No. 2 (Doss) wasn’t playing and figured they could cover our wide receivers, but that’s the deepest position on our team,” Southern coach Dawson Odums said. “We’ll get the running game going.
“I just think it’s pick your poison for the teams that play us. Our wide receivers get all the attention, but you can’t double everybody. Every week, somebody is stepping up to make a play. If they do take away the passing game, it will open up the running game.”
Doss still leads the team with 59 catches, 869 receiving yards and six touchdowns. Willie Quinn has 45 catches, 553 yards and five touchdowns.
Jones is averaging 26.6 yards per catch, tight end Bradley Coleman had seven catches for 54 yards against Texas Southern two weeks ago, and freshman receiver Randall Menard has made all 12 of his catches, for 315 yards and four touchdowns, in the past four games.
“(The depth has) enabled me to get one-on-one match-ups again,” Joseph said. “Teams started keying on (Doss) because he led the SWAC in receiving last year, and he was leading again this year.
“They’ve been double-teaming and sometimes triple-teaming him. But we have a number of guys playing well. It’s going to be tough to defend everybody. Ultimately, somebody is going to get open. It’s up to me to find them.”
Southern has leaned on the running game at times, rushing for 145 yards and three touchdowns against Prairie View, and 39 times for 163 yards and two touchdowns against Arkansas-Pine Bluff.
“Arkansas-Pine Bluff defended the pass real well, so we went to the run game. And we were real successful in that,” said running back Lenard Tillery, who had a season-high 136 yards and a touchdown in that game. “A lot of people say just because we don’t get a lot of carries we’re not involved, but sometimes we’re very active in the passing game.
“We’ll run check-downs, and (Joseph) will throw it to us. We know lot of times, if we get down or need to score fast, we’re not going to run. We embrace it and do a good job of protecting Dray so he can make the throws he needs to make.”
Tillery said the passing performance made the victory against Alabama State “an amazing game to be a part of.”
Offensive lineman Dwayne Houston said it’s more fun for linemen when the offense runs than when it passes, but it’s still plenty of fun when the Jaguars pass like they did last week.
“We’re happy for our teammates when we throw the ball, but it’s more fun being able to run the ball, throw people on the ground, play in the trenches,” Houston said. “As linemen, we like the intimidation of running the ball.”
Right now, it’s Southern’s passing game that’s intimidating.
“We have a solid group of receivers, and we have the best quarterback in the SWAC,” Jones said. “We have a great offensive line, and the running backs have been playing well, so we have great balance. Whatever we need to do, run it or pass it, we can do it.”