JACKSON, Miss. — Nearly four weeks ago, the Jackson State football team sat 3–0 for the first time since the 2011 season. In those games—a season-opening win against Edward Waters College, a thrilling victory against Grambling and a dominant performance against Mississippi Valley State, the Tigers were riding high and looking to build on their momentum.
But instead of going 4–0 for the first time since 1996, Jackson State (3–2, 2–1 in-conference) dropped two games in the last three weeks, a 35–28 loss on the road to Alabama State and a disappointing performance against Southern in a 34–14 nonconference loss last Saturday.
Despite the recent defeats, the Tigers are still tied for second place with Alabama State in the Southwestern Athletic Conference East division race. And first-year head coach Deion Sanders is not afraid to make change when needed.
Sanders’s mantra for his team—playing smart, fast, tough and disciplined—has been under examination in recent weeks with Jackson State’s inability to finish games, move the ball efficiently and stop opposing teams from doing the same.
“Change is something that is needed in life and everything,” Sanders says. “To go to another level, there has to be change. Change is a meal that is not easily digested by many, but it is inevitable. We are trying to change the culture.”
That change in culture, from an on-field perspective, is geared toward the Tigers’ earning their first winning season since 2013 and establishing a routine of competing for SWAC titles like the schools’ teams from the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. With two games remaining in the 2021 spring season, Sanders is still on pace to fulfill his mission in restoring the tradition and legacy of the program.
“I don’t settle with nothing,” Sanders says. “The way we go about practice and the expectation, the character of the kids, the coaching staff, we are not going to settle for anything less.”
Jackson State will get another opportunity Saturday afternoon when the Tigers face SWAC East leader Alabama A&M (2–0, 1–0 in SWAC) at Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium for homecoming on ESPN. The last time JSU defeated AAMU was in 2017, when the Tigers won 10–7 under former head coach Tony Hughes.
Alabama A&M comes to Jackson with a SWAC victory in a forfeited win against Alcorn State, a postponed game against MVSU and a 31–7 dominating win against Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference opponent South Carolina State on March 6. Over the last three weeks, the Bulldogs have had games canceled or postponed against Grambling State and Prairie View A&M.
With one real win this season, AAMU looks to make a statement with hopes of redeeming itself from potentially winning the division a year ago before a heartbreaking loss against Alcorn.
“It’s going to be a big game,” Bulldogs coach Connell Maynor says. “We’re ready to hit somebody else, and we look forward to this opportunity.”
Like the previous two weeks, JSU will have its hands full in stopping another top-tier playmaker in A&M quarterback and SWAC Preseason Player of the Year Aqeel Glass.
The senior quarterback threw for 272 yards, four touchdowns and three interceptions against SC State. In the Bulldogs’ last full season in 2019, Glass threw for 3,600 yards, 32 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, including a four-TD performance in a 48–43 win over Jackson State in the last meeting between the two teams in 2019.
AAMU’s offense is built around the play of wide receivers Zabrian Moore, Abdul-Fatai Ibrahim, Brian Jenkins Jr. and Odieu Hilaire. The Bulldogs also feature a running back, Gary Quarles, who has made an impact catching passes out of the backfield.
Defensively, the Tigers enter Saturday’s game ranked second in the conference in scoring defense (allowing 20.8 points per game), fourth in total defense (347.2 ypg), seventh in rush defense (170.4), second in pass defense (176.8) and first in interceptions (five).
The Tigers’ secondary has dealt with some injuries, according to the Clarion-Ledger. However, Sanders says his defense will be ready.
As the Pro Football Hall of Famer prepares his team for arguably its biggest test of the season, his notion of changing the culture is not solely based on victories.
“I don’t equate success with just wins and losses,” Sanders says. “If you win 11 or 12 games and no one goes pro, did you win? When it comes to parents seeing their children, they may have sent us a boy, we want to send back to them a man.
“Our games should be more challenging than our practice. When we practice, our practices are competitive. That’s how the real world is. You have to prove yourself, earn your job and earn your living.”
Preparation for the real world goes beyond the football field and the classroom. Sanders hopes that setting the standard of being active in the campus and Jackson community will serve as a blueprint for his players to be well-rounded athletes.
“Jackson, the people, the hospitality, it has been really good to me, my kids and my coaching staff,” Sanders says. “I try to speak to everyone while I am jogging around campus or walking around the track. Sometimes, I take the boombox with me and tell the students we gone have some church today while we work out. Tell your mom and dad we had church.”
Sanders has also not shied away from interacting with the women’s and men’s basketball teams and the softball team, or attending a baseball game.
“All of athletics have been balling,” Sanders says.
“I’ve been to a softball game to support letting them know we’re in this together. I’ll be so glad when this pandemic lessens so kids can really get to experience the students on campus and experience the crowd at football games at full capacity.”
Last month, JSU allowed 50% capacity (22,000) fans for the remainder of its home games in the spring season. With an energetic homecoming crowd expected on Saturday and a division crown still within reach, the Tigers will look to bounce back and capitalize on playing at home.
This week, however, Sanders made a change at quarterback, naming freshman Quincy Casey the starter against the Bulldogs over sophomore quarterback Jalon Jones.
“He’s just been building on a good week,” Sanders told the Clarion-Ledger of Casey. “For the last couple of weeks, we’ve been monitoring that. We had a real meeting with [him] and the coordinators offensively to try to get a grasp of what we’re trying to do to approach practice like it’s a game, and not approach practice like it’s practice.”
Casey saw limited action in the Tigers’ wins against Edward Waters and MVSU, accounting for 142 yards and a touchdown. Jones, on the other hand, has thrown for 1,016 yards, 11 touchdowns and three interceptions while completing a little over 55% of his passes.
In a season when the offensive line—particularly the last two games—has dealt with issues blocking and anchoring the offense, the Tigers will also see a change in their rushing attack. Jackson State will be without its top two rushers in Jones (rushed for 248 yards) and running back Tyson Alexander (rushed for 377 yards on 62 carries and a touchdown).
Despite JSU’s recording its worst third-down conversion percentage and another week of limited production on the ground in a loss against Southern, the Tigers enter Saturday’s game ranked second in the conference in total offense (404.6 ypg), second in rush offense (173 ypg), third in pass offense (231.6 ypg), third in third-down conversions (40.3 %) and first in first downs (21.8 per game).
In every season, there will be ups and downs. Jackson State hit a wall of adversity in its last two games.
Adversity creates change. And for Sanders and the Tigers, there lies an opportunity to continue writing a new narrative around the JSU football program moving forward beyond the spring.
“I’ve been at the highest level of the NFL and the MLB and I look at life through those lenses,” Sanders said. “We want to hold our deal for our side of JSU tradition, give exposure and we want to give the fans what they deserve.”