Meet Jake Lange, from walk-on to Southern Miss hero
HATTIESBURG, Miss. (WLBT) - At one point during Southern Miss’ homecoming matchup against Arkansas State, the Red Wolves were up 19-7 and had a 95% chance of winning.
To say mounting a comeback for the Golden Eagles was feasible would have been a controversial opinion, especially if you were in M.M. Roberts Stadium surrounded by frustrated Southern Miss fans.
Then entered walk-on quarterback Jake Lange, arguably the most improbable solution to securing a late victory for the Golden Eagles thought most, if not all, Southern Miss fans.
Lange, a capital city native, played high school football at one of the most prestigious and rich football programs in the state - Jackson Prep. From dominating and winning game after game, to joining a rebuilding Southern Miss football program in 2020 as a walk-on could have been a culture shock for the young quarterback.
However, overcoming adversity was nothing new for Lange.
“In junior high football, I really didn’t play any meaningful snaps. I was the ball boy for [Jackson Prep’s] high school team growing up.” Lange said. “My sophomore year, I long-snapped and was down on the depth chart, and going into my junior year of high school, I was fifth string [quarterback]. I didn’t start until my seventh game of junior year against our rivals JA [Jackson Academy] when I put up the single-game passing record that stayed until this season. My senior year, I didn’t play too well and got injured after starting eight games.”
Having to climb up the depth chart at Prep to finally become the starting quarterback at the high school, Lange would have to do it all over again in a much more competitive and less forgiving environment while learning a new position.
“Going into college, I was a freshman walk-on and they handed me the No. 24 jersey and I was playing safety on the scout team in the 2020 season,” Lange said. “Looking back at it, that was huge for me because I learned so much about defense and how it works. When Coach [Will] Hall came in in the spring, I worked my way up to the third-string quarterback.”
The 2021 season began, and Lange saw himself practicing on the scout team again, this time as a quarterback. However, he was called into action when starting quarterback Ty Keyes went down due to an injury during the season.
“I didn’t play too well. I was young and every young quarterback is going to struggle. And for the ones that don’t, they are making billions of dollars,” Lange said. “I didn’t know if I would get another opportunity, but I was in constant prayer and had a lot of faith, and I was just trying to do the right thing every day. I came into [practice] every day with an intentional plan to get better, not just at football but physically, mentally, and handling and conducting myself around the locker room.”
His chance came. After halftime of last Saturday’s game, Lange came in for the young, talented starting quarterback Zach Wilcke and was tasked to execute and lead an offense that sputtered at best on the night.
“Jake is a guy who is going to do exactly what the play call says,” said Coach Hall during the post-game press conference of the Arkansas State game. “We knew we were blocking. We knew we could get open. We just needed a little better execution. And, I thought Jake would give us that.”
“I wasn’t worried about rallying the team. We have great coaches,” Lange said. “I wasn’t trying to do too much. Everyone gets caught up in, ‘Oh, I gotta throw a 90-yard pass for a touchdown for the first play of the half.’ No, all we needed to do was register the ball down the field and not do anything crazy. We didn’t need all of this crazy, wild stuff. Our team was playing well, we just needed to execute better.”
Lange and the Southern Miss offense did indeed not complete a 90-yard touchdown pass with the first play of the second half. In fact, the Golden Eagles failed to score any points in the third quarter, and hope for a homecoming win for the first time since 2019 looked impossible.
Then the fourth quarter began.
With 12 minutes and 18 seconds left to play, Southern Miss needed a score to have any chance of flipping the result. While not as flashy as a 90-yard touchdown throw, Lange put the team on his back and did exactly what was expected of him and led the offense to a nine-play, 95-yard scoring drive, capped off by running back Frank Gore Jr’s. 30-yard rush into the end zone to have the Golden Eagles trailing 19-14.
Southern Miss’ defense, the “Nasty Bunch,” limited the Arkansas State offense to just three plays worth -6 yards during the drive immediately after Gore Jr.’s score to give the Southern Miss offense a chance to take the lead.
It was third down in the red zone with nine yards to go to get the first down with under 3 minutes to play.
Lange, not giving up, turned a busted play that seemed to go nowhere into hurdling an Arkansas State defender and scrambling for a 6-yard gain to create a manageable fourth and three situation that Southern Miss had to convert.
“I ran the 300-meter hurdles my senior year at Prep,” Lange said with a laugh. “Credit goes to Coach Thompson, Coach Butts, Coach Nix, Coach Burge, Coach Brewer, and all of those guys and Coach Black, who encouraged me to run track. Who knows what would have happened during that play if I didn’t run track,” Lange said jokingly. “I may not have been the best runner, but I know I would have competed my butt off [during the play].”
The Golden Eagles converted the fourth down play thanks to a 4-yard catch from tight end Cole Cavallo. Then, Lange handed the ball off to running back Janari Dean for a 3-yard touchdown that would ultimately clinch a win for Southern Miss.
It was seemingly meant to be for the school and Jake.
Winning in “The Rock” during a homecoming game for the first time since 2019 with the final score being 20-19, the Southern Miss Golden Eagles completed one of the most improbable of comebacks for also their first Sun Belt Conference win led by the most unlikely (so we thought) of quarterbacks, who is now seen as a Southern Miss hero.
“I was pretty emotional after the game,” Lange said. “After everything that happened last year, after being a walk-on and still a walk-on now, I was just really thankful. I thanked God for everything that has happened to me and all of the blessings that I have. Without Him, I wouldn’t be anything. I’m just thankful to have this team and these coaches.”
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