Jackson, Miss. — Jason Brown was staring into the end zone with hopes of escaping the reality that his final pass sailed over the hands of wide receiver Fabian McCray. As triple zeroes lit up across the high-arching scoreboard of Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium, the Jackson State quarterback was frozen in the moment, one he wished could have resulted in a different outcome than a 24-19 loss to Alabama State on Saturday evening.
Brown’s incomplete pass unleashed the Hornets yearlong shackles of the perpetual reminders of Alabama State’s heated loss to JSU for homecoming in the 2022 campaign, a contest that generated the iconic “He Ain’t SWAC” phrase aimed at former Tigers head coach Deion Sanders. When it comes to HBCUs, homecoming games bolster a deeply-rooted rite of passage for alumni, fans and the football players competing between the hash marks seeking to capture one of the most anticipated contests on the schedule each season.
At JSU, a program embedded in a winning culture, there are steep expectations for success, especially for homecoming. In the last two seasons in the Sanders’ regime, JSU’s homecoming games were like Hollywood spectacles filled with A-list celebrities and cushy red recliners along the sideline. Although those commodities were absent this year, there were still 30,945 fans eager to see the “Sonic Boom of the South” marching band “rock the house” and to watch JSU seek its fifth win of the season in commanding fashion. Instead, JSU’s battle against its SWAC East foe was a game of field position in favor of its opponent infused with turnovers, the lack of converting on third downs as well as a matchup that generated a combined 21 penalties between both teams.
Brown and JSU coach T.C. Taylor expected to celebrate after Saturday’s game. But when the two walked into the news conference after the loss, the aura of defeat was unequivocally visible on their faces, indicating that the outcome was not what they hoped for. “It’s a tough loss,” Taylor said. “It’s homecoming… a lot of family, a lot of players’ family and alumni wanted us to be successful today.” However, Alabama State marinated in a year’s worth of motivation to defeat the Tigers. The Hornets’ energy was on display in their first drive of the game when quarterback Damon Stewart launched a 54-yard strike down the left sideline to Kisean Johnson. Although ASU only managed a field goal in its uptempo opening drive, the Hornets limited a Tigers’ offense—a unit that entered Saturday’s game as the SWAC’s third-best team in points per game while leading the league in total yards—to two fumbles and two punts while clinging to a 10-0 advantage in the first quarter.
But after the teams exchanged punts through the first three drives of the second quarter, JSU’s offense took advantage of its first field position in Hornets’ territory when new placekicker Dylan Wasson booted a 46-yard field goal to give the Tigers their first points of the game. Then, the Tigers’ defense came up with an interception from Anthony Petty, setting up a eight play, 42-yard scoring drive capped by quarterback Jaobian Morgan finding the endzone on a one-yard run to tie the game at 10 entering halftime.
JSU’s slow start in the first half of Saturday’s game was no isolated event. Since the Tigers’ loss to the Rattlers in the highly-anticipated Orange Blossom Classic during Labor Day weekend, Jackson State has consistently started slow and has yet to fulfill Taylor’s doctrine of a “dominant” game in all three phases and a fireworks show on offense.
When JSU was presented an opportunity to seize control of the game in the third quarter, the Hornets’ defense stung the Tigers, forcing JSU’s second fumble of the day on a drive where the SWAC’s leading rusher Irv Mulligan exited the game with an apparent ankle injury. Jackson State managed to control the time of possession in the quarter and added a 45-yard field goal from Wasson, hoping that would provide a spur of confidence entering the fourth quarter.
However, Jackson State’s punting deficiency became its Achilles heel in the final 15 minutes, much like it has all season. Rewind three weeks to JSU’s home game against Bethune Cookman, a contest that was also marred with punting deficiencies but also helped Leilani Armenta become JSU’s first female kicker in program history. On Saturday, JSU’s All-American punter Matt Noll, who had been injured this season, logged several punts that traveled a limited distance of the field. His punting efforts aided Alabama State with back-to-back touchdown drives that started from JSU’s 45 and 35-yard line respectively. The Hornets’ scoring opportunities combined for six plays in under three minutes. “The field position was in their favor most of the night,” Taylor added. “They [Hornets] went out there and executed when they needed to.”
This issue will find itself on Taylor’s to-do list once again this week, considering Noll was in “some pain” during Saturday’s game. “He [Noll] gave us all he had… he kept fighting… really tried to push through [the pain] because we didn’t really have anybody else to go out there and do it,” Taylor said.
The Tigers responded with a late touchdown on a long 13-play, 55-yard drive that erased 2:00 off the clock. However, that was only after JSU’s first two drives in the fourth resulted in punts and a combined six plays for minus 15 yards before Brown’s final chance to be the Tigers homecoming hero fell short. “ASU has been a solid defense all year. …We knew points would be hard to come by,” Taylor said.
In the SWAC, like most conferences in college football, each game matters during the months of October and November. The Tigers’ loss puts them two games behind SWAC East leader, Florida A&M, while also being in a bottleneck with three other teams—Alabama A&M, Alabama State and Mississippi Valley—with two losses in conference play. However, JSU is the only team of the four that has two division losses.
But for Taylor, the call to action for his team was simple. “Tomorrow is Sunday, so we got to get started getting ready for next week,” he said. “Take a look at the injury report and start planning for next week.” JSU will make the nearly two hour trip on Saturday to Itta Bena, Miss., to battle against in-state rival Mississippi Valley, a physical contest where records between the two teams become obsolete.
In a program where competing for championships is the expectation, JSU’s loss on Saturday surely puts even greater obstacles in the Tigers’ pursuit of a third consecutive SWAC title in ‘23. Jackson State, a team that was in the driver’s seat of its SWAC title dreams in each of the previous two seasons under Sanders, has entered the mid-October warning period with critical checkpoints remaining to see if the Tigers can bounce back after a pivotal division loss.