This is a new thing for Texas Southern’s Johnnie Cole, overseeing a ground war.
“You know,” Cole was saying this week, “I had to swallow my pride. My forte is throwing the football; use the pass to set up the run. But now, we run to set up the pass.”
You do that, change everything, when your air attack has faltered. Who knew they had a talent like Marcus Wright on the roster? But for early-season struggles by quarterback Arvell Nelson, maybe nobody.
Yet, as a resurgent Texas Southern (5-3, 5-1 SWAC) visits Southern on Saturday, Wright comes in ranked second in the SWAC with 681 yards and five touchdowns. His gritty rushing has helped the Tigers leave behind a spotty 1-3 start with an on-going four-game winning streak. Over that month-long span, Wright has accumulated 465 yards and three of those TDs.
Couple that with Texas Southern’s top-ranked defense — the Tigers held Mississippi Valley State to 109 yards of total offense last Saturday en route to a 38-7 victory — and it doesn’t look good for a Jaguars team (2-6, 1-5) on the tail-end of a difficult rebuilding season.
“We’re a contender,” Wright said after the Valley game, his third consecutive with 100 yards. “A lot of teams haven’t given us a chance of being able to even compete on this level, but Texas Southern is here to stay.”
Southern isn’t horrible against the run — its fourth-ranked rushing defense is surrendering 140.1 team yards per game — but it’s facing one of the best talents, and storylines, in this league.
Wright, spelled by Dechon Daniels and Martin Gilbert, has moved the focus off Nelson, who has quietly regained his own footing after an ugly start. Last season’s Southwestern Athletic Conference newcomer of the year — and the face of Cole’s celebrated HOBO (high-octane, big-play offense) offense — Nelson was benched while the team transformed from Pass First (40 attempts in the opener against Prairie View, with four Nelson picks) to Run Wild (just 19 pass attempts against Jackson State).
Perhaps predictably, Texas Southern lost to Prairie View on Sept. 4, but bested Jackson State on Oct. 23. That’s who the Tigers are now.
[Stump Mitchell must face myriad problems at Southern, streaking foe.]
“What’s making us win is playing good, solid defense and running that ball,” Cole said last week, as he prepared for the Valley game. “So, we’re going to continue to run the ball. It’s no secret: We’re going to run the ball 50 times a game, and that’s how we’re going to win. We’re going to get the ball to our playmakers, and our playmakers happen to be running backs. ”
They did. Nelson has since returned, but the focus has remained on running the football. In Saturday’s win, the Tigers put up a season-high 510 yards — and Nelson again only attempted 19 passes. Texas Southern’s 179 rushing yards per game ranks second in the league, behind only Grambling — which boasts Walter Payton Award candidate Frank Warren.
And Texas Southern has just kept on winning. If the Tigers keep it up, they will not only have erased the memory of those early-season stumbles — they will have punched their ticket to Birmingham, Ala., and a first-ever SWAC Championship Game.
One step at a time.