The Prairie View Panthers have one major hurdle to clear in Saturday afternoon’s (1 p.m.) regular-season finale to make it back to the SWAC Championship Game for the second straight season.
They need to win on the road against a one-win Mississippi Valley State team on Saturday – Senior Night for the Delta Devils — for a spot in the return engagement against SWAC East champ Jackson State. But just being in this position again is a victory somewhat for a Panthers’ football program that has undergone a coaching change, has a first-year starter at quarterback and the loss of several key players from a season ago.
It’s a testament to a lot going right for the Panthers this football season.
“It feels really good, it really does,” said first-year coach Bubba McDowell, a longtime PV assistant coach who took over in the offseason once Eric Dooley left for Southern. “You guys don’t know, and a lot of fans don’t know it but these guys have been really resilient from the start of August in training camp. Some of the things we have been going through, they hung in there as a team, and they continued to go out there each day and prepare themselves to play against football teams.
“It leads back to where we are right now. We are in a good position and they have to understand that. Opportunity doesn’t come often so you have to take advantage of these opportunities. If they do that, we are going to be okay.”
The math is real simple for the Panthers, who are 6-4 overall and 5-2 in the SWAC. Win on Saturday and the SWAC West Division title is theirs.
A loss would complicate things. Prairie View would find itself in an unfavorable spot against three 4-3 West foes. A Panthers loss combined with wins by either Southern or Alcorn State would eliminate them from the West Division title equation.
So it’s plain what’s in play for Prairie View on Saturday and McDowell has let it be known to his team.
“They aware of what’s at stake and I make sure that they know what’s at stake,” McDowell said. “We know going into the Valley, we know (Mississippi Valley State coach Vincent Dancy) is going to have them guys ready to go. It’s Senior Night, last home game. They are going to put forth the effort.”
Ironically, the Panthers were in a similar situation with Mississippi Valley State at the end of last season on Senior Night on The Hill. The Delta Devils upended PV, 24-19, but the Panthers had already clinched the division prior to the regular-season finale.
It will be much trickier this season with a complicated SWAC tiebreaker scenario that could leave Texas Southern as the West champ despite losing head-to-head with Prairie View earlier in the season.
So it’s important for the Panthers to take care of business Saturday.
“We had the exact same thing when they came here,” said McDowell, who was Prairie View’s defensive coordinator last season. “They put it to us and I don’t expect anything less, the way that he coaches. He gets those guys going and we have to do the same on this end.
“If we go out and play football the way we know how and execute it the way we know how, I think we will be okay.”
The Panthers haven’t been as dominant this season as they were last year, but they have been scrappier and much more versatile this time around. Prairie View is the SWAC’s top rushing team, but the wildcard has been first-year starting quarterback Trazon Connley, who has been deadly running the ball and efficient enough with his passing to make opposing teams pay when they drop eight in the box.
There is no better example of Connley’s efficiency than last week when he completed just eight passes in the win over Arkansas-Pine Bluff. Five of those completions were for touchdowns.
“He is that dude,” McDowell said of Connley. “If he continues to do what he do, we can do some good things.”
That’s what Dancy is concerned about. The Delta Devils’ attacking defensive style could play right into Connley’s hands, especially since they rank last in the SWAC in passing defense (312.2 yards per game, 24 touchdowns allowed) and in overall defense (455.6 yards per game, 37 touchdowns).
“They have an outstanding quarterback who can run and throw the ball,” said Dancy, whose team is coming off a loss at Southern. “I think he is a phenomenal runner, but he can pass the football. So we’ve got to focus more on stopping the run and making him throw the ball and putting ourselves in position where we can defend the pass, but also letting our pass rushers get after the quarterback like they did against Southern.”
For McDowell, Saturday comes down to being focused and taking care of business as the Panthers look to establish themselves as the power in the West.
“That’s what it’s all about,” he said. “We are in a space right now with a great opportunity to establish something really really good going back-to-back.
“I know a lot of people say don’t speak on it but our players need to know that. They need to know what they have done from the beginning of the year to where we are right now. Yes, we had some help and thank God we are in position right now to do some good things and they have to understand they have to go out and make it happen.”
Follow Terrance Harris on Twitter @terranceharris