The look on Sylvester Nzekwe’s face said it all.
Saturday night, shortly after Southern flopped in the second half of a 38-33 loss to Florida A&M, the junior tailback was asked to speak about his performance. He said he did OK, but also mentioned that he could’ve done better.
Then he was asked about the team’s performance. Nzekwe shook his head. He gave a blank stare. Then he sighed and looked toward the Georgia Dome ceiling.
“Everybody’s performance …”
Nzekwe’s voice tailed off.
“I don’t know. Everybody had their errors. I don’t know what to say.”
A few more good moments, bad signs and oddities from the Jaguars’ second straight crushing loss:
- The quarterbacks … in the first half. Sophomore Dray Joseph came out strong in the first quarter. He fired a long 41-yard bomb down the left sideline to star receiver LaQuinton Evans; found Lee Doss for a pair of nice gains, then hit Mike Berry down the middle for a 56-yard score. He threw one interception on a bad read (or, at least, bad communication between Joseph and his receiver, Jordan Bilbo). After that, freshman J.P. Douglas came in — and right before halftime, he led the longest (and best) drive of the afternoon. Douglas was 3-for-5 on that 13-play drive, and he scrambled for 11 yards on a busted play. The resulting touchdown gave SU a 19-17 halftime lead.
- (Some) special-teams plays. Southern got a great boost from its kickoff- and punt-return teams, getting 239 yards from both units — including Byron Williams’ 79-yard punt return, which came very early in the third quarter. Also, the coaching staff gambled by using a new place-kicker, Matt Hill, for the first time. Hill is a sophomore who played soccer in junior college and never kicked in a college football game before. He was 3-for-4 on extra points and attempted no field goals. Manuel Canto handled punts and kickoffs. He was mostly solid, though he bobbled a first-half snap, and his punt was blocked, resulting in a field goal for FAMU.
- The run game. Starting for the first time this season, Nzekwe gave the Jaguars plenty more than they had before. He had 42 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries Saturday, averaging 3.0 yards per attempt — not great, but far better than SU’s first three games, when the team averaged 1.3 yards per carry. Nzekwe added 45 receiving yards on a team-high five catches. In other words, he gave the Jaguars what they desperately needed.
- The defense. It was not a perfect performance for Southern’s defense, by any means. But yet again, the defense was on the field for a long time Saturday (18 more plays than the offense). And though the defense almost held off FAMU, it started to tire late in the game, giving up rushing yards in chunks, allowing FAMU wideout Kevin Elliott to break loose, etc. On balance, however, the defense did enough to give Southern a chance to win. After four weeks, the defense has played 92 more plays than the offense. Not good now … and really not good later, deep into the season, when fatigue sets in.
How much time do we have?
- The offense … in the second half. Southern managed 52 yards from scrimmage after halftime. Enough said.
- The quarterbacks … in the second half. In fairness, Douglas didn’t have the ball for long during the third quarter, when Williams made his punt return and Demetric Rogers made his 59-yard interception return for another touchdown. But on two third-quarter possessions, Douglas went 0-for-5. By the time Joseph re-entered the huddle, at the start of the fourth quarter, he was cold. FAMU started playing more zone defense, and it worked: Joseph threw two more interceptions.
- Dropped passes. Talented receiver Mike Berry scored for the third time in the last three games, breaking open for a 56-yard touchdown in the second quarter. But he had two CRUCIAL tips/drops in the fourth quarter. On one play, Joseph’s pass was behind Berry, who reached backward, tipped the pass and gave FAMU linebacker John Williams a chance to pick it off. Which he did. (Joseph said Berry ran the wrong route on the play.) Then, late in the game, when Southern had to have a third-down conversion, Berry was open down the middle. He got both hands on the ball … and dropped it. SU punted, and FAMU responded with the game-winning drive.
- Also, it’s worth noting that Evans made only one catch, the 41-yarder in the first quarter. He was the target on Southern’s last play, the interception to seal the game. Between those two moments, he was barely targeted at all. That might have been FAMU’s coverage; I don’t know. But the Jaguars needed the ball in his hands more often.
- Other mental mistakes. No sense in piling on here, because this wasn’t a true turning point. But in the third quarter, the Jaguars had a 33-17 lead, and their defense forced another three-and-out. One more scoring drive probably could’ve put FAMU away for good. Southern’s Jared Detrick tipped a punt, and after it fluttered beyond the line of scrimmage, Corry Roy tried to snatch the ball and make a return. He muffed it, and FAMU recovered. That’s when new quarterback Damien Fleming came into the game. He led the Rattlers on a scoring drive, and that gave FAMU the small opening it needed in order to get back in the game. It should’ve been another big play for SU. Instead, it was a big play for FAMU. And many moments like those added up to a big letdown in the end.
Well, let’s leave it at this: It’s not every day that a team builds a 33-17 lead in the second half; gets a surprising boost from a previously nonexistent ground game; gets a defensive touchdown; gets a special-teams touchdown … and still finds a way to lose.
So far, it’s been that kind of year.