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Courtesy: SWAC.org

2013 Judgment Day sparks SWAC Football in Houston

Courtesy: SWAC.org
Release: 12/07/2013
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By Roscoe Nance
The Southwestern Athletic Conference insert another historical and monumental event on Saturday when Jackson State and Southern meet at Reliant Stadium in the 2013 Toyota SWAC Football Championship. It will mark the 15th installment of the championship game.

It will be the first conference title contest played in Houston after the previous 14 were played at Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala. The change in venue has generated an air of anticipation for both teams and their fans.

“Anytime you can put an HBCU (game) in a big city largely populated by African Americans, you got a chance for growth and expansion and for excitement to happen,’’ Southern University football head coach Dawson Odums says. “That’s what kind of city Houston is. It’s a great place for SWAC to move the game to. I think it’s going to be an electrifying crowd.’’

It’s difficult to imagine a more fitting matchup for the game’s maiden voyage in a new city. Both teams have been on a roll. Southern ended the season with a four-game winning streak. Jackson State won seven of its last eight contests. Both schools have a large, passionate fan base, that follow their teams and don’t take kindly to losing, especially to each other.

It isn’t a blood rivalry between Jackson State and Southern. But the two programs have a lot of history between them on and off the field.

“Both institutions represent a capital city mystique,’’ former Southern University coach and athletic director Marino H. Casem, who those posts at Alcorn State as well. “It’s sort of like an aristocracy of black colleges, like Hampton, Howard and Xavier represent the mystique of academia. In athletics, Southern and Jackson State represent the same kind of aura as Michigan, Ohio State and UCLA on that level.

Both are proud of their location, proud of their heritage. They both have an attitude about themselves. Both want to be the biggest and best in all facets.’’

This will be the fourth championship game appearance for SU and fifth for JSU, and the second match-up for the title. Southern defeated the Tigers 31-30 in the inaugural championship game in 1999. That contest attracted 47,621 fans, which still holds the championship game record.

That mark could very well be eclipsed Saturday, considering the buzz around the contest. Both schools’ backers are starved for a title. Southern hasn’t won the title since defeating Alabama State 20-9 in 20-3, and the Jaguars are in the championship game for the first time losing to the Hornets 40-35 in a rematch the following year.

Jackson State makes a consecutive appearance and is gunning for a title to go with its 2007 42-31 victory against Grambling State. Tiger backers are still reeling from Jackson State’s 24-21 overtime loss to Arkansas-Pine Bluff last year. Jackson State led the entire game before giving up a 95-yard touchdown pass on second-and-nine with two minutes remaining in regulation.

Jackson State coach Rick Comegy insists that he and his team have put that gut-wrenching defeat behind it.

“I haven’t even thought about last year’s game,’’ Comegy says. “The one in front of you is the most important. The one in the past you can’t do anything about.’’

The Tigers captured the East Division with an 8-1 conference record. They a 7-3 overall. Among their victories was a heart-stopping 19-14 victory against Southern in Baton Rouge, La., in the first month of the season. Jackson State won the game by forcing Southern to turn the ball over on downs at the Tigers’ seven-yard line with a minute left. Bradley Coleman dropped a pass in the end zone on fourth down.

The key for the Tigers, however, was their running game. They rushed for 190 on 53 attempts. The victory sparked a seven-game winning streak that enabled them to clinch the East title with a game remaining in the season.

“We’ve found an identity, found what we wanted to do,’’ Comegy says, adding that Jackson State is a different team at this point than it was when it played Southern in September. “We were scrambling, looking for an identity. We dodged a bullet in that first game.’’

Odums sees Jackson State a little differently than Comegy does.

“They’re the same team,’’ he says. “You don’t have to change much when you’re pretty much undefeated in the conference and you survived some close games. That’s sign of a good team. When you watch the film, they are who they are. You don’t reinvent the wheel. We’re not going to reinvent the wheel. We’re going to lineup and try to do what we do a little bit better.’’

For Jackson State that means playing aggressively on defense and being balanced on offense. The Tigers rushed for 202.1 yards a game and threw for 216.9. Quarterback Clayton Moore poses a dual threat for opponents. Moore passed for 1,747 yards and 13 touchdowns, and he was No. 3 in the conference total offense with 260.4 yards a game.

Defensively, Jackson State was No. 2 against the run, allowing 141.9 yards a game and No. 2 in sacks with 29.

An intriguing matchup will be Southern’s passing game, led by senior quarterback Dray Joseph, going against Jackson State’s defense. Joseph led the conference in passing with 3,236 yards passing and 27 touchdowns. Wide receiver Lee Doss had a conference-high 1,047 receiving yards, and he caught 10 touchdown passes.

Jackson State cornerback Qua Cox is one of the most highly regarded defensive backs in the conference, and is likely to be assigned to cover Doss.

Jackson State has not played since losing its season finale to Alcorn three weeks ago. The layoff has Comegy concerned that his team might be rusty.

“We’ve been trying to stay sharp,’’ he says. “When you have a long layoff, you tend to get rusty and lose some of that sharpness. We’ve been going a little bit every day. A lot of it has been just technique work. We’re reviewing the review from when we came into (preseason) camp so we don’t make a lot of mistakes. We’re trying to get mistake free.’’

Southern on the other hand is coming off a 40-17 victory against Grambling in the Bayou Classic last week. It was an emotional contest against their arch-rival. A lot coaches would liked to have an open date before playing for the conference championship. Not Odum.

“I don’t like our guys after a bye week as far as their focus,’’ he says. “It’s hard to get them focused on the next opponent with so much time off. I like playing back-to-back games. Against Grambling we were able to get some stuff out of our system that we normally don’t do. I think we’ll be much better this week.’’

Odums says he was concerned that the Jaguars seemingly relaxed after building a 27-3 first-half lead against Grambling and allowed the G-Men to briefly make a game of it by scoring two touchdowns.

“I still don’t see that killer instinct,’’ he says. “You go to put that game away.’’

Southern captured the West Division with a 7-2 conference record in Dawson’s first season as coach. The Jaguars were 8-4 overall for their first winning record since 2009. It was the most wins in a season since they were 8-3 in 2007.

Odums replaced Stump Mitchell on an interim basis two games into the 2012 season and guided the Jaguars to four victories in their last nine games after they got off to an 0-2 start.

Odums says he hasn’t given any thought to the strides the Jaguars have made since he took over or the implications of him leading them back to respectability.

“I’m an old school coach,’’ he says. “The only way you get where you are and get these opportunities is through hard work. Once the season is over I’ll reflect back on it and say we did some remarkable things. We have one more game to close out the year. We’re going to try to make sure we do all we can to win it.’’