Hornets bounce back with road win over Jackson State on homecoming

Alabama State University RB Jacory Merrit (21) gets taken down by JSU's Jakaizer Glass (59) after catching a pass during the first half of play at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Jackson, Miss. Saturday, Oct. 12, 2019.  Barbara Gauntt/Clarion Ledger

Alabama State University RB Jacory Merrit (21) gets taken down by JSU's Jakaizer Glass (59) after catching a pass during the first half of play at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Jackson, Miss. Saturday, Oct. 12, 2019. Barbara Gauntt/Clarion Ledger

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JACKSON, Miss. — Mississippi Valley State graduate transfer Jett Even hadn’t started a game for Alabama State before Saturday’s matchup against Jackson State. But with starting quarterback KHA’Darris Davis out with an injury he suffered against Alcorn State, Even was thrust into the starting position.

Even came off the bench last season in the Delta Devils’ loss to Jackson State and had his best game of the season, throwing for 182 yards. He had another quality game against the Tigers on Saturday at Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium, but this time he led his team to a victory.

Even threw for 189 yards and one touchdown and rushed for two more scores to lead the Hornets (3-3, 2-1 SWAC) to a 31-16 win over Jackson State (1-5, 0-1) and effectively spoil the Tigers’ homecoming.

“I was really just trying to get the team a win,”  Even said. “I played here last year at homecoming and didn’t like the outcome, so I’ve just been working and getting ready.”

Alabama State had one of its most complete offensive games of the season in the victory against Jackson State. Their 338 total offensive yards was their second-best output of the year. Ezra Gray and Jacory Merritt were a pivotal part of that as they rushed for 75 and 73 yards, respectively. They led a 176-yard rushing effort for the Hornets, which shattered their previous season-best of 145 against UAB.

Alabama State’s defensive performance was standout, too. The Hornets finished the game with three sacks and two interceptions. They’d only had two interceptions on the season prior to Saturday’s win.

“We were able to execute offensively,” Alabama State coach Donald Hill-Eley said. “Jett came in and managed the game well and did a great job, and defensively we played salty and made it tough for them to get the ball down the field.”

It may have been a game to remember for the Hornets, but for Jackson State it was anything but.

Derrick Ponder got the starting nod in favor of Jalon Jones, the freshman transfer who started in the loss to Grambling. Ponder was consistently harassed by the Alabama State defensive front all day and struggled mightily as a result. He was sacked twice in the first quarter, and the Tigers found themselves in an early 14-3 hole after a 10-yard touchdown run by Even in the second quarter.

Through three quarters, Ponder had completed less than 40% of his passes and managed just 62 passing yards.

The Jackson State coaching staff went to Jones hoping to spark the offense, but Jones’ second pass of the day was intercepted. Ponder was brought back in on the Tigers’ next drive, but things didn’t get any better for the offense.

Ponder would finish with 164 passing yards and two touchdowns, one of which came in the final seconds of the game.

Fans may look to the ever-present quarterback issues as the culprit for Jackson State’s loss to Alabama State to open SWAC play, but that’s not the team’s biggest issue.

In front of a home crowd of 30,000, the Tigers converted just 4-of-15 third down attempts.

It didn’t help that the Tigers were often stuck with less-than-favorable field position, either. Six of Jackson State’s drives in the loss started at or inside their own 20. And when they weren’t dealing with terrible field position, they were setting the Hornets up in prime position to score.

Three of Alabama State’s five scoring drives started on Jackson State’s side of the field. Despite all of that, the Tigers still entered the second half only trailing 14-10.

When CJ Holmes stepped in front of an Even pass and returned it to the Hornets’ 15, it look as though the Tigers were preparing to mount a comeback. Nothing would come of it, though. Alabama State forced a fourth down and recovered a mishandled snap on the field goal attempt.

From there, the Hornets outscored the Tigers 17-6.