In the span of a week, Jackson State went from appearing as if it picked up where it left off during back-to-back Celebration Bowl runs to picking up the pieces after a 28-10 loss to Florida A&M in the Orange Blossom Classic.
The demise of the Tigers on Sunday started 11 seconds into the game when Marcus Riley returned the opening kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown before the crowd at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens could settle in.
It wouldn’t be the last time the JSU special teams unit would hurt themselves in the first quarter.
After Jackson State could get as far as the FAMU 15-yard line on the offense’s first possession, a field goal attempt went poorly when long snapper Avery Salerno slung the ball over the head of holder, resulting in no points on the drive.
The Tigers’ special teams, particularly in coverage, allowed huge gains by FAMU returner Jah’Marae Sheread, who tallied 96 yards on three attempts, changing the field position.
“We took a heavy hit in the first round. It was an amazing return by that kid, head coach T.C. Taylor said after the game. “He (Riley) did what he was supposed to do, and we had to rebound from it. I thought it set the tone for their program, and their football team got the energy and momentum. It took us a while to rebound from it and get over it.”
“I thought that (special teams) was a thorn in our side all day.”
Still rattled from a 21-point first-quarter hole after a pair of TD passes by FAMU QB Jeremy Moussa, the Jackson State offense couldn’t keep pace.
Transfer quarterback Jason Brown, who masterfully directed the JSU attack against South Carolina State, could never find a rhythm.
Brown went 10 of 19 for 82 yards before being replaced by backup Zy McDonald, who went 10 of 14 for 149 yards and a 66-yard TD pass to Rico Powers.
Taylor said he decided to go with McDonald to give the offense a much-needed spark lacking in the first half.
“I thought Zy did a great job,” Taylor said about the relief effort. “Jason has some things he has to work on going forward. Zy came in and gave us a little spark.”
Brown, Taylor said, needed X-rays on his throwing hand. It is unclear whether Brown will be ready to go when Jackson State continues its road trip at Southern on Saturday.
Despite the defense not allowing a point in the second half, it was not enough to overcome the slow start that found the Tigers down by as much as 28-0.
Taylor and the Tigers can take solace that it fought to score 10 points. And that it didn’t give up a score over the final 30 minutes.
Now Jackson State will have to determine whether the outcome Sunday was just the end of its 17-game SWAC winning streak or the rekindling of all those preseason questions about its place in the SWAC.
“We got our butts kicked today out there,” said Taylor. “We have to do better going forward, myself and coaches, as far as getting this football team ready to play.”