For South Carolina State head football coach Oliver “Buddy” Pough, this could be more than just a working holiday weekend -- and perhaps even better than a relaxing getaway.
It could be a great start to a new season in which the Bulldogs utilize a solid defense and an emerging offense to post wins.
Pough’s team knows all football fans will have one live game to choose from on television Sunday afternoon.
S.C. State plays Southern University at Ace W. Mumford Stadium in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in the MEAC/SWAC Challenge at 2:30 p.m. on ESPN2.
The game will also be aired on 90.3 FM WSSB.
“It’s always fun to be a part of the ESPN package this way,” Pough said, entering his 16th season at the helm in Orangeburg. “I think they put this together at a time where we are the only football game on.
“It’s a national kind of opportunity. It’s always exciting to open up on national TV. For programs outside (the FBS ranks), it’s kind of a bowl game feel around this weekend. Any time you get the exposure, where you’re the only game in town, it makes it big.”
It’s being billed as Battle on the Bluff. The excitement in the pregame hype includes reigning Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year and S.C. State All-American linebacker Darius Leonard facing off against preseason first-team All-Southwestern Athletic Conference quarterback Austin Howard of Southern.
The Jaguars are coming off an 8-3 season and just looking to have another winning season, beginning with this matchup in their home stadium.
“Their quarterback is really good, but they lost their 1,000-yard rusher from last year and they lost three of their five offensive linemen,” Pough said about Southern.
For the Bulldogs, however, it’s more about a new beginning after a disappointing 2016 that began with losses at FBS programs Central Florida, Louisiana Tech and Clemson, and ended with a 5-6 record despite wins in the final two games.
The Bulldogs are solid on defense, led by Leonard and fellow redshirt senior All-MEAC linebacker Dayshawn Taylor. Pough believes the defensive line is deep and has the talent to make a difference in every game. Redshirt senior defensive end Greg Newell, redshirt sophomore tackles Shaquille Crouch and Paul McKeiver, along with sophomore tackle Tyrell Goodwin are all back and were among the top 16 tacklers for the Bulldogs a season ago.
In the defensive backfield, graduate student Jason Baxter, the third-leading tackler in 2016, is back at free safety, bolstered by the experience of redshirt senior cornerback Devondre Powell and redshirt junior cornerback Alex Brown (Lake Marion), who were both top-10 tacklers in 2016.
The questions arise on the offensive side of the ball, where redshirt sophomore quarterback Dewann Ford is in his first season as starter, and where no established running back returns. In fact, sophomore tailback LeBron Morris has been atop the preseason depth chart, but Pough announced in recent days that Morris is recovering from an injury and won’t be available to play until the home opener, Sept. 9, against Charleston Southern.
It should help Ford’s comfort level that the top two receivers from 2016 are back running routes, including sophomore De’Montrez Burroughs (23 receptions for 348 yards in just six games) and redshirt sophomore Quan Caldwell (22 receptions for 221 yards in 11 games), who each scored three touchdowns a season ago. And, through preseason camp, Pough is encouraged that the offensive line has established a two-deep depth chart from some players who needed more work on fundamentals but have the talent and power to perform.
“I’m excited about the offensive front now, where when we started camp I was worried that we might not have enough to field a whole group,” Pough said this past week. “We’ve told the offense that we will go out and play well on defense, that’s established.
“But our big years are when the offense performs well. At this point, we’ve got some unknowns, but we have the potential to be better than last year. It’s a new day and we feel like this can be a real good football team.”
Defensive coordinator Tommy Restivo is back to lead the Bulldogs stop unit that he had nationally ranked two seasons ago, while first-year offensive coordinator Danny Lewis is in his 10th season on the Bulldogs’ staff and looking to lead his unit to put points on the scoreboard consistently.
Howard is the team leader for Southern, having passed for 2,655 yards on 192-of-330 passing to score 29 touchdowns against just eight interceptions in 2016. As he goes, so go the Jaguars on offense.
Gone is 2016 leading rusher Lenard Tilley, who collected 1,665 yards and 13 touchdowns on 247 carries a year ago. But senior Herb Edwards is in position to carry the bulk of the rushing load for Southern, having rushed for 164 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries in 2016.
Southern has two of its top three pass catchers back from 2016. Redshirt junior tight end Dillon Beard (38 receptions for 488 yards and six touchdowns) and senior wide receiver Randall Menard (24 receptions for 350 yards and four touchdowns) are atop the depth chart for the Jaguars entering the season.
Passing could be a problem against the Jaguars, as senior cornerback Danny Johnson returns after a seven-interception season in which he returned one pick for a score. But only four seniors start for Southern on the defensive side of the ball.
With the Bulldogs being without the services of Morris at tailback, Southern will be without sophomore tailback Darbbeon Profit for this game and the rest of the 2017 campaign. Profit had been competing behind Edwards in preseason camp until Profit sustained a knee injury that requires surgery. Profit starred in high school across the street from Southern’s stadium at Southern Lab. Profit carried the ball 17 times for 65 yards and a touchdown in 2016.
Southern head coach Dawson Odums has said he is confident his offense can lean on Edwards and get contributions from redshirt freshmen Jamarqueza Mims and Devon Benn as the season progresses.
Streaks on the line
S.C. State is playing in its fourth MEAC/SWAC Challenge. Southern is playing in its third. Neither has lost a game in the event.
The Bulldogs played in the inaugural contest in 2005, defeating Alabama State, 27-14, at Legion Field in Birmingham, Alabama. S.C. State also beat Grambling in 2009 and Arkansas-Pine Bluff in 2015.
The Bulldogs’ three wins in the series are the most of any participating team.
Southern defeated Florida A&M in 2007 and Delaware State in 2010. The Jaguars are the lone unbeaten SWAC team in the event.