Southern University was locked and loaded for a big game against Alabama State but it was football on the docket, not basketball or baseball. This is the new abnormality in HBCU sports. The Jags took the postponed season in stride and the first win of the season eclipsing the Hornets 24-21 Friday night at Hornets Stadium.
Only one band was in the stadium due to COVID-19 protocols instituted by the conference prohibiting them from traveling to away games. The sound of that one band was barely heard throughout the game. Except for the school fight song, the band and the Stingettes sat quietly. Social media reports believe it was punishment due to an infraction one of Dr. Oliver’s rules.
Without music and tailgaters, only the sounds of collisions and fans filled the unusually warm Alabama air. This is football in the new abnormal.
It had been over 400 days since either of these teams played a down. A few weeks of practice during the second semester of the school year usually culminates in a spring game where the final score only matters to the coaches. This time around, the game wasn’t an internal game between squads but rather a conference foe. And the result mattered.
Defense is normally ahead of the offense in spring ball. Southern’s senior safety Chase Foster proved that point by returning a tipped pass for a 14-yard touchdown for the Jag’s first score of the new season.
Fifty plays and almost an entire half passed before the Hornets answered the bell. Ryan Nettles 32 yard pass to Jeremiah Hixon evened the score at the half.
Halftime came and went like a whisper -no Mighty Marching Hornets, no Stingettes, no Honey Bees. Nothing about this is remotely new or normal.
The fifteen minutes spent in the locker room ignited both teams’ offenses. Both squads mounted scoring drives to start the half. Ledarius Skelton completed two passes and rushed for 20 yards including an 8-yard score on the Jags’ first possession of the new half. The lead lasted almost three-and-a-half minutes. Hornets tailback Ezra Gray ripped off his longest run of the game a 23-yarder to midfield. Ryan Nettles continued offsetting the pick-six he threw earlier tossing his second touchdown a 14-yarder to Michael Jefferson.
A coffin corner punt by Aubrey Grace pinned the Jaguars inside their own 10 and set up the defense to make a play. Abraham Adesipe ran down the scrambling Skelton and stripped the redshirt senior of the ball. Cameron Rampersaud picked up the loose ball for the Hornets to set up Jacory Merritt’s 1-yard touchdown dive.
Jags head coach Dawson Odums stood by his starting quarterback despite the young man’s mistake. “He made the plays when we needed them to be made,” said Odums.
Skelton did just that three plays and 55 seconds later. The Jags tight end Gregory Perkins found himself all alone and Skelton found him for a 59-yard pitch and catch touchdown.
Cosmin Diaconu’s 17-yard punt from the end zone set up the Jags for what would become the game-winning field goal. The Hornets’ defense held Southern’s offense to a 1-yard gain but it wasn’t enough to keep Cesar Barajas from splitting the uprights from 41 yards out.
Oddly enough it was an attempted field goal with just over two minutes to play that gave Bama State an opportunity to tie the game. A bad snap from center picked up by Barajas resulted in a 19-yard loss and a good starting point for the Hornets. Nettles and company made it as far as the Southern 27 before calling on Hunter Hanson to attempt a game-tying 44-yard field goal. Hanson had already missed a 47-yard field goal wide left in the first quarter. The senior couldn’t catch a break in his hometown missing wide left for a second time.
Hornets head coach Donald Hill-Eley didn’t lay the blame at his kicker’s feet. “As I told the team, it didn’t come down to a kick,” said Hill-Eley. “It’s too many points involved for it to come down to a kick. It was mistakes made by everybody. The kick was just highlighted because it was the last play of the game.”
All photos c. Jason McDonald, JM Photography for CORE360 Sports