Jackson State University is looking to break their losing streak against Tennessee State when they meet again for the Southern Heritage Classic on Saturday at 6 p.m.

Unfortunately, JSU’s opening game loss last week against the University of Southern Mississippi 55-7 didn’t do much to prepare them for the task at hand.

JSU has lost the last six games to TSU and came close to breaking that losing streak last year. JSU lost 17-15 despite entering as a heavy underdog.

Head coach Tony Hughes enters his third season as the leader of the team, with a 6-16 overall record at JSU. The team finished 2017 with a 3-8 record, losing many of the games by close margins. The experience the team gained should be a catalyst entering this season. JSU only allowed 28 total points in the last four games and defeated the Eastern Division champions Alcorn State 7-3 in the final game of the season.   

Hal Mumme was brought in as the new offensive coordinator. Mumme will use the Air Raid scheme, which JSU fans hope will light up the scoreboard more often. Derrick Ponder, the starting quarterback, is a JUCO transfer who has played in a variation of Mumme’s system dating back to his prep days. He put up gaudy numbers during the team’s spring game and looks like a perfect triggerman for what should be a revamped offense for Jackson State. That said, Jarrad Hayes is also in the mix for the top spot on the depth chart.

Sophomore quarterback Ponder started the season opener for the Tigers. It was the first time since high school that Ponder started a game. The 6-foot-2, 210-pounder finished 12-for-29 for 62 yards with no touchdowns and a pair of interceptions against a stout Southern Miss defense. Jarrad Hayes replaced Ponder late in the third quarter and enjoyed success, albeit it was against the Golden Eagles second and third teams. Hayes went 7-for-8 for 32 yards and tossed one touchdown pass. The 6-0 senior also finished with an efficiency rating of 166.55.

Against Southern Miss, JSU rushed for 105 yards on 22 attempts. Keshawn Harper, a 5-11, 185-pound sophomore rushed for 69 yards on nine attempts, for an average of 7.7 yards per carry. Junior Jordan Johnson also added 20 yards on six attempts.

The skill positions are well stocked for the Tigers entering 2018, starting with running backs Jordan Johnson and Terrell Kennedy. Johnson was the team’s bell cow last season, leading the team with 647 yards rushing and six scores. Kennedy, more of an all-purpose threat, chipped in with more than 300 yards and a score while making a significant impact as a return man. With this duo, the Tigers have the potential for a solid one-two punch in the backfield.

On the outside, Jackson State returns three of its top five pass-catchers from 2017. With the Blue and White’s offense trending toward a very pass-happy orientation, fans are expecting considerable strides in what was a pedestrian aerial offense last season. Romello Shumake (22 rec, 174 yards in 2017), Carle Ollie (29 rec, 247 yards in 2017) and converted quarterback Jordan Williams have impressed in the offseason, and Benjy Parrish is another experienced option at receiver.

The JSU defense has a reputation for making the most of their opportunities. The squad did just that against Southern Miss. Junior defensive back Tyler Rogers and freshman linebacker Keontre Hampton each recorded an interception. Sophomore defensive tackle Charles Anderson recovered a fumble in the second half.

The Tigers defense is expecting to be the team’s calling card after growing a year older, wiser and tougher. The defensive line projects as a strength, with Charles Anderson (52 tackles, 8.0 TFL, 4 sacks in 2017) and Khalil Johnson (25 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks in 2017) projecting as difference makers in the trenches, and Malik Hamner (46 tackles, 9.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks) bringing a disruptive force to the fray.

Eric Bowie (46 tackles, 7.5 TFL) has the look of a tenacious defender and is likely to be the heart of the linebacking corps. The secondary has the makings of a ball-hawking unit. Ryan Theyard (17 total passes defended) returns, and CJ Holmes (team-high 2 INT) showed a nose for the ball in spot duty last season. Kendrick Love, another offseason head-turner, and Love McBride look to flesh out a unit loaded with potential.

During SWAC media day on addressing replacing some of the players that he lost last season, Hughes said, “We have added some junior college transfers to fill in the gaps. We play a lot of guys on defense. We believe in playing 20-25 kids on defense. There are a lot of players that may not be starters and play a lot of snaps that are coming back this year. We have some younger kids that may have been red-shirted, now they are going to have to step up to that role.”

The key to the success of the defense, according to Hughes, is confidence and believing in the system. Hughes also said it helps that the coaches have coached under good defensive coaches and have brought some of those techniques to JSU.

This could be the year that JSU sends the Tigers of Tennessee State back to Nashville with a loss if they are able to put all facets of the game together.