Huge strides for JSU, but an excruciating defeat to Tennessee State is the bottom line

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Rick Cleveland

Jackson State kicker Christian Jacquemin is consoled by an unidentified Jackson State coach after his last second kick to win the Southern Heritage Classic sailed wide to the left by inches.

MEMPHIS – Some defeats hurt more than others. If you are Jackson State and you lose 63-0 to powerhouse TCU, you can get over that one fairly easily. You know, deep down underneath all the padding and bravado, you aren’t supposed to win that game. It’s a money game. You take the check and go back to work.

But a week later, when you play hated rival Tennessee State, a really good team at your own level, you know you can win if you play your hardest and your best.

But when you lose – 17-15, when a final field goal sails just six inches wide to the left – you have to fight for the words to describe the pain. That’s especially true when your kicker, Christian Jacquemin, had made a 47-yarder for what appeared to be the winning points, only to learn Tennessee State had called timeout a fraction of a second before the ball was snapped.

Tony Hughes, JSU’s 58-year-old head coach, tried to find the words to describe the pain outside a locker room, where he had just left his heartbroken players, some in tears.

“It hurts, it hurts to the core,” Hughes said after a long pause. “It just rips your heart out. Our kids have worked so hard to get into position to win a game like this, and to lose it like that just rips the hearts out of their chests.”

Hughes inherited a talent-depleted JSU team and has worked his fanny off, trying to replenish the once-proud program. You could see the strides he and his staff have made Saturday night in the Southern Heritage Classic at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium. An announced crowd of 47,407 saw it first-hand on a pleasant night with a first hint of fall in the air.

You first need to know a little history here. Tennessee State had beaten Jackson State five straight times by an average of three touchdowns each. This is supposed to be a heated rivalry but it’s hard to even call it a rivalry with domination like that.

And then Tennessee State took the opening kickoff and went 65 yards in just four plays and 83 seconds, looking for all the world like the Tennessee Tigers would continue their utter domination of JSU. But, for the last 58 minutes and change, Jackson State took the fight to Tennessee State.

JSU out-gained TSU 303-238. The Mississippi Tigers had 21 first downs to Tennessee State’s 11.

But here’s the deal: To win games like this one, you have to first learn not to beat yourself. There were so many times during the course of the game when Jackson State couldn’t seem to get out of its own way.

Or, as Hughes put it, “You have to make plays in the red zone, and we didn’t make enough of them.”

In five trips into the red zone (inside the opponents’ 20-yard line), JSU came away with just three field goals. Seemed nearly every time the Tigers faced a short yardage situation, they tripped over their on feet – a delay of game here, an illegal procedure penalty there, an illegal substitution still another time.

“We’ve got to be more consistent,” Hughes said, and he is right.

Jackson State quarterback Brent Lyles showed flashes of brilliance. He completed 24 of 45 passes for 196 yards, also ran for 55 yards on 13 carries and produced more yardage individually than Tennessee State as a team.

“I thought he did some good things. I thought he handled himself well,” Hughes said.

But what really gives Hughes and Jackson State so much hope for the future is the Tigers defense, where the talent level and the speed level has risen a notch or two from recent years. After Tennessee State’s first drive, the JSU Tigers allowed only 174 yards of offense and 10 points. And seven of those 10 points came on a punt return.

“We can have a really good football team if we continue to play defense the way we did tonight,” Hughes said, and this observer would agree.

“We were so close to getting over that hump tonight,” Hughes said, holding a thumb and pointer finger millimeters apart.

Six inches – that’s how close.

“I coach the special teams,” Hughes said. “We work on that situation we had at the end of the game all the time, and he’s made them in practice.”

Jacquemin made the first one Saturday night. In fact, he made three of four, including a 49-yarder at the end of the half.

“It’s like I told him,” Hughes said, “he will face this situation again.”

It could be Saturday.

“You know, the thing is we have to go to Grambling next Saturday and they are the defending black national champions,” Hughes said. “They are not going to feel sorry for us. We have to go back and get ready to go play them. We’ll get back tonight. We’ll practice tomorrow. As hard as it is, we have to put this one behind us.”

And, man, it was so hard to do that.