HOUSTON — A lot changed in the 10 weeks between the first game between Southern and Alcorn State and the rematch in the Southwestern Athletic Conference championship game Saturday in NRG Stadium.
The Jaguars had regained the services of 10 players and gone on a seven-game winning streak to repeat as West Division champions. The Braves had coasted into the final after wrapping up the East in early November, losing twice in their final six games.
But one thing didn’t change: Alcorn was the better team on Dec. 6, just as it had been on Sept. 7, beating Southern 38-24 to win in its first trip to the title game since its inception in 1999.
The Braves, who won the regular-season meeting 56-16, finished 10-3 and likely will be named black college national champions when the final Sheridan poll is released Tuesday.
The Jaguars, the defending SWAC champions, finished 9-4 after losing to Alcorn for the fourth straight time.
“It’s a great day to be an Alcorn State Brave,” coach Jay Hopson said after leading his program to its first conference championship in 20 years. “This is why you put cleats on — to have this feeling.”
The Braves were superior Saturday in areas that were decisive in the first meeting as well. They ran for 230 yards against a defense that had not allowed 100 yards to any of its past three opponents after allowing 410 in the first meeting.
“They ran the ball pretty well,” Southern defensive end Arthur Miley said. “We did well on a couple of drives and got some stops late, but overall they ran well.”
Quarterback John Gibbs Jr. was named Most Outstanding Offensive Player after running for 132 yards and passing for 245 yards and three touchdowns.
“We wanted to make John beat us,” Southern coach Dawson Odums said. “The first game, we tried to take the ball out of his hands, and that didn’t work so well. When you play good teams, you can’t take everything away.”
Gibbs had a 13-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Payne on the first possession of the game, helping the Braves to a 10-0 lead after one quarter. His 3-yard touchdown pass to Billy Shed gave them a 24-10 halftime lead after Willie Quinn’s punt return for a touchdown had gotten the Jaguars within seven points in the second quarter.
The Braves converted 7-of-16 third-down plays; three of their touchdowns came on third, and a fourth kept alive a touchdown drive.
Southern ran for just 108 yards, which made things difficult for quarterback Austin Howard.
He completed 15-of-30 passes for 152 yards.
“In watching film of the games, they had played since we played them, we knew they had turned run-heavy,” said Braves defensive end Will Thomas II, who was named Most Outstanding Player on defense after making a team-high nine tackles. “So we had an all-out effort to stop the run and make them one-dimensional.”
Alcorn broke a 24-24 tie when Anthony Williams III completed a 59-yard drive with a 4-yard touchdown run that gave Alcorn a 31-24 edge entering the fourth quarter. The Jeanerette native also had a 12-yard run in the second quarter.
Gibbs’ 51-yard touchdown pass to Jabor McKenzie on the second play of the fourth quarter pushed the margin back to 14.
Southern, which tied the score in the third quarter on a return of a blocked punt, blocked another one and took over at the Alcorn 22 with nearly 10 minutes remaining.
The Braves hadn’t had a punt blocked this season before Saturday, but Mason Ceasar got them twice. The first one was returned 9 yards by Dennis Craig for a touchdown that completed a 14-0 to start the third quarter that tied the score.
“We were horrible on special teams,” Hopson said. “But we played really good on offense and defense, and that’s how we were able to overcome it.”
The Jaguars failed to capitalize on the opportunity because, on fourth-and-1 from the 13, Damon Watkins stopped Malcolm Crockett for a 2-yard loss.
“After the second blocked punt,” Hopson said, “that’s when the defense put us on their shoulders and said, ‘You’re not getting in.’ Adversity had really struck at that point, but the defense stood strong when the momentum was in Southern’s favor.”
On its next possession, Southern drove to a first-and-goal at the 1, but Lenard Tillery fumbled when hit by Deion Roberson, who recovered for a touchback.
The Jaguars still had time to score twice when they regained possession with 3:57 left, but Howard fumbled when hit by Jamil Cooks. Damien Moody recovered, and the celebration began on the Alcorn side.
“They’ve been pretty much the favorite all year,” Odums said. “They deserve to celebrate. They should enjoy this feeling. We know what they’re feeling.”
Southern was enjoying the same feeling one year ago, when it won its first SWAC title in 10 years. But seniors such as offensive lineman Zach Brown didn’t get to add a second ring on the way out the door.
“After being 4-7 and 4-7 my first two years,” Brown said, “it’s pretty amazing to say I played in two championship games and won one.”