SWAC coaches: Quarterback controversy? What quarterback controversy?

Hopefully, you had your roster handy at last week’s Southwestern Athletic Conference games. If you pay attention to quarterback play — and who doesn’t? — you likely needed one.

Jonathan Troast, seeing his first action since the season opener against Bethune-Cookman, came off the bench for Prairie View and proceeded to toss four TD passes in the second half to lead the Panthers to a stunning 31-23 victory over Grambling in annual State Fair Classic at the Cotton Bowl. Grambling, meanwhile, started Frank Rivers in place of quarterback D.J. Williams, who was out with turf toe. Rivers threw for nearly 200 yards and two scores.

Southern again used both J.P. Douglas — who threw the game-winning touchdown pass with 11:09 to play — as well as Dray Joseph at quarterback in a nail-biting victory over Missisippi Valley. It was Valley’s 18th straight conference loss, in a streak dating back three seasons — but it was also the smallest margin of defeat in conference games since a 17-12 stumble against Alabama A&M on Nov. 21, 2009.

Alabama State quarterback Greg Jenkins, who was originally sharing time with last year’s SWAC Championship Game starter Devin Dominguez, passed for a career-high 297 yards and three scores, while rushing for 58 yards and a 23-yard touchdown on a keeper last week in an eventual win over Alcorn State. On the other sideline, the Braves inserted Darius Smith in place of starter Brandon Bridge under center in an attempt to spark the offense. Smith tossed two touchdowns, while passing for 186 yards.

That might lead one to believe that there were quarterback controversies brewing across the league, right? Alcorn State coach Melvin Spears counters: “Absolutely not.” It’s all about competition, he added during Monday’s weekly SWAC coaches teleconference. Grambling’s Doug Williams downplayed any brewing controversy, too. As did Prairie View’s Heishma Northern. And so on …

“There is an ongoing competition for everyone, not just at the quarterback position,” said Spears, whose 1-4 Braves are on a bye week. “Certainly, you always want one to come out and solidify things, but right now they are even. It’s a fair market for all 22 positions. It’s not any different than with any other player.”

Northern, whose team is 3-2 and facing Southern this week, made a change when Prairie View quarterback Jerry Lovelocke went down at halftime with an injury to his right ankle. Throast entered the season atop the depth chart, but lost his job to Lovelocke after a shaky start. True freshman De’Auntre Smiley has also competed for playing time.

“I think we have a good trio of quarterbacks — if not, they wouldn’t be here on scholarship,” Northern said, in post-game comments. “Troast went out there and played the way we expected him to. He made some great reads, throws and runs. He just had a great second half.”

For Williams, injury was the catalyst for change for his 1-4 club, which is also on a bye: “D.J. has got severe turf toe, something that happened in the first quarter of the (Alabama) A&M game. It wasn’t a matter of just switching quarterbacks. Frank was going to be the starter, because D.J. wouldn’t have been able to play either way.”

Perhaps the biggest surprise was the benching of Bridge — a celebrated preseason player who ended up fourth in the league with a 190-yard passing average per game as a freshman in 2010. In fact, only two passers, both upperclassmen, threw for more than his 19 touchdowns last season. Yet the untested sophomore Smith is a promising prospect, as well, Spears said.

“Darius has a big arm,” he said. “He’s shown a little more poise. He’s not looking to run so much. Anytime, when you have a real young team, you have to matriculate them to where you want them to be. Sometimes, it takes a little more tutelage.”

Southern coach Stump Mitchell, who promised a two-quarterback system in the run up to the 2011 season, seems to have finally completed his depth chart — but that doesn’t mean you won’t see two guys: “Dray Joseph is going to be my starter the entire year, unless he get’s injured. Dray has my full backing,” Mitchell said, later in the teleconference. But Mitchell also said this: “I like where we’re at with both quarterbacks. Both of those guys can play and both of them will play. They’re going to face both quarterbacks. They know that.”

Northern said he expects Lovelocke to play against 2-3 Southern on Saturday. Jenkins has apparently secured the job at Alabama State, which used Dominguez in each of its first three games but hasn’t inserted him since. Williams and Spears get another week to sort things out.

Don’t expect the quarterback questions to have gone away by then — no matter how much these coaches try to avoid them.

“We’re going to focus on what’s best for our team — not what’s best for one player or another,” Spears added. “It’s an identity crisis until you find a new leader. But we’re trying to win — whatever it takes to win. That’s where we are at right now.”


In a tightly contested game, Jackson State’s Rick Comegy says: ‘I sure enough prayed’

There are moments, when a game is whipsawing back and forth, when all you can do is look heavenward. Ask Rick Comegy, whose Jackson State squad pulled out a tightly contested game last week at fellow Southwestern Athletic Conference foe Southern.

“It was probably one of the most exciting games I have been involved with in a long time,” Comegy says. “They were sky high, and there was a packed house down there for them. It was just a game of give and take. I think about what the power of prayer can do. I sure enough prayed on the sidelines.”

Trailing 24-21 with just 4:36 minutes to play, Casey Therriault tossed a 12-yard touchdown pass to Rico Richardson that finally gave Jackson State (3-0, 1-0 SWAC) its 28-24 margin of victory. The score capped a seven play, 65-yard drive that left Southern at 1-2 and 1-1 in league play.

The home-standing Jaguars actually had one more possession to try for the win, but just 1:32 left on the clock. Jackson State defenders notched one sack, and forced three incompletions to end things. That stifling unit held Jaguars’ rushers to just 19 total rushing yards. Southern quarterback Dray Joseph, who had already tossed three scoring passes, could only complete one pass in the final quarter of play.

It was another thrilling game in this series, which has become one of the league’s marquee matchups — even during seasons like this, when both programs are have been ruled ineligible for the SWAC Championship Game because of listing APR scores.

“I am grateful that we came out with the win — it could have gone either way,” Comegy said. “You couldn’t get any distance between them in the score. They kept coming back. I’m just glad we had the tenacity and the ability to put it in the endzone to win.”

Youth at the quarterback position means SWAC West is wide open

The preseason polls picked Grambling to win the Southwestern Athletic Conference’s Western Division. With so many new faces at quarterback, however, it’s really anybody’s game.

All five programs in the West have used first-year starters, with Southern reinserting the lone second-season performer just this week.

“That leads to a wide-open situation on this side of the bracket,” said first-year Prairie View A&M coach Heishma Northern, a longtime SWAC assistant and former player. “On the other side, Jackson and Alcorn State have returning guys; Alabama State has a guy coming back. On that side, I think it will come down to quarterback play. But on our side, you never know which guy will show up. Defense and special teams will be utmost, and who can run the ball the best.”

Already, we’ve seen some dizzying highs and some awful lows, as youthful passers find their way.

Prairie View A&M, of course, just completed a barnburner at the Labor Day Classic in Houston, having come back from 14 points down in the fourth quarter to beat in-state SWAC rival Texas Southern, 37-34. It was the Panthers’ fifth straight Labor Day Classic victory. But Northern’s team is already on its second quarterback, as the program moves forward with out K.J. Black, who led Prairie View (1-1, 1-0 SWAC) to a league title two seasons ago.

Jonathan Troast was benched after the Panthers stumbled badly in the opener against Bethune-Cookman, replaced by Jerry Lovelocke. The freshman quarterback threw for just 72 yards, but lead all rushers with 67 yards — including a 30-yard dash to score that moved his team to within striking distance of the win, at 34-27. Lovelocke then led two consecutive scoring drives, tossing a 15-yard touchdown to Greg Thurmond then getting his team in place for a game-winning kick.

Texas Southern (0-1, 0-1), meanwhile, is also starting a newcomer in Dantavious Parker. Arkansas-Pine Bluff (1-1, 1-0) used a powerful running attack to score 17 unanswered second-half points and claim a come-from-behind victory over Alcorn State, 27-20. UAPB quarterback Ben Anderson, a red-shirt freshman, finished 14-of-24 for 168 yards and a score.

First-year starter D.J. Williams, a week after Grambling’s emotional season-opening win over Alcorn State, struggled against FBS foe Louisiana-Monroe, going 10-of-21 while throwing two interceptions at the Tigers (1-1; 1-0) fell 35-7. (He didn’t receive much help from his defense, however, which surrendered 247 rushing yards.) Southern benched freshman J.P. Douglas after a season-opening loss to Tennessee State, then got each of its three touchdowns last week from Dray Joseph beating Alabama A&M 21-6 in the SWAC opener for both teams. The sophomore, who played in 9 games in 2010, went 18-of-27 for 308 yards as Southern (1-1; 1-0) snapped a seven-game losing streak dating back to last season.

All of this uncertainty could have historic win-loss implications for the division’s eventual champion. Only twice has a representative from the rugged SWAC West dropped more than one contest before punching its ticket to Birmingham, Ala., since the Southwestern Athletic Conference championship game was established.

Grambling was undefeated in SWAC play in 2005 and 2008, and had 1 loss going into its SCG appearances of 2007, 2002, 2001 (though Alabama State has since forfeited that game), and 2000. Similarly, Southern was undefeated in 1999, and had 1 loss in 2003 and 2004. Prairie View had 1 loss in 2009. Arkansas-Pine Bluff and Texas Southern are the exceptions. Eventual champ Texas Southern had three losses last season; UAPB had two losses in 2006, and fell in the SCG to Alabama A&M.

The other side of the bracket has sometimes found easier passage to the league’s championship match. More than half of the East participants have had at least two losses since the game began in 1999.

“This may be the year that a two- or three-loss ball club sneaks in from the West,” Northern told me. “It’s hard to see who will get consistent play with that many new faces.”

Gritty Alcorn State win narrows this year’s wacky SWAC East race

Earnest Collins‘ team isn’t out of contention in the SWAC’s wacky Eastern Division, despite losing four straight going into last weekend. And if Alcorn State can keep finding way to close out opponents like it did against Southern, this race could get a lot more interesting.

Beating back the Jaguars’ upset bid, after the Jaguars held Alcorn to just one second-half touchdown, Collins and Co. crept away with a 27-20 victory. Alabama State and Jackson State each won as well, meaning the East might not be decided until Nov. 20 when Alcorn and Jackson State meet in the Capital City Classic.

At times, it was pretty ugly, this Alcorn State win. But you have to get through games like that on the way to a championship.

“A win is a win is a win, and I’ll take it any way I can,” Collins said after the game.

They still made mistakes, he added. The difference was: “We had a better defense out there to make up for it.”

Alcorn State quarterback Brandon Bridge (fresh off a 413-yard, four-touchdown performance in Alcorn’s 39-35 loss to UAPB) came back down to earth — going 14-of-27 for 204 yards, one touchdown and two picks. Still, Alcorn would score 20 straight points beginning with Arturo Tamayo’s 32-yard field goal.

The up-and-down Jaguars wouldn’t go away, though. They answered back beginning midway through the third period on the ground, in the air and by field goal to get within a touchdown of Alcorn State. After a shaky start, Dray Joseph was superlative. He threw for 394 yards — most by a Southern quarterback since Bryant Lee’s 407 yards against Florida A&M in 2008 — and a touchdown on 26-for-48 passing.

For Southern — coming off a loss to Prairie View A&M where the Panthers won with a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns — the story would again end, however, on a familiar note: The Jaguars just can’t seem to finish.

[Disastrous outing is a new low in Alabama A&M’s season of woe.]

A week later, the Alcorn game came down to a key mistake by Bridge, and then a tremendous effort by his defense.

Southern’s Cameron Booker returned an interception to the Alcorn 43, and the Jaguars marched down to the 10 with a chance to tie it with less than 1:30 to go. Southern eventually got to fourth and goal from the Braves’ 4. Fullback Lee Mitchell took a Dray Joseph pass to the 2, but Alcorn State defender Jameson Smith made the stop to end things.

In all, the Jaguars put up 451 yards of offense, but saw two turnovers lead to points for Alcorn. Drives often sputtered through a shower of flags, as Southern looked every bit like one of the most-penalized teams in all of the championship subdivision.

The Jaguars fell to 2-6 overall and 1-5 in league action. Terrance Lewis rushed for 126 yards and a touchdown as Alcorn State improved to 4-4 overall and 3-3 in SWAC play.