HOUSTON — Alcorn State set the tone for the Southwestern Athletic Conference championship game right away Saturday.
On the first possession of the game, Braves quarterback John Gibbs Jr. ran left on an option play, saw an opening, cut upfield and sprinted 50 yards for a first down at the Southern 16. The play was significant not only because it led to a touchdown that spurred the Braves’ 38-24 victory, but also because it came on first-and-15, one snap after a false start penalty.
Alcorn never trailed in the game, partly because it easily overcame virtually every obstacle, whether it was a relatively small one, such as a first-down false start, or a much bigger one such as a 14-0 haymaker by the Jaguars during the first five minutes of the second half.
“They made big plays,” Southern coach Dawson Odums said, “and we didn’t make enough.”
The Braves, who forced Southern to punt after three plays on each of its first three possessions, didn’t punt themselves on any of their first four possessions.
After the opening touchdown, their second possession ended when Gibbs was intercepted by D’Andre Woodland, giving the Jaguars the ball at the Alcorn 45. The Braves didn’t blink, as Willie Quinn rushed for 1 yard, Lenard Tillery ran for 6 and Austin Howard threw an incompletion. Just like that, Alcorn had the ball back after a punt and drove to a field goal.
The Braves gave Southern another opportunity when the ball bounced off the leg of Quinton Cantue while he was blocking on a punt and Bryan Anderson recovered for the Jaguars at the Alcorn 35.
Though Southern managed to move to first and goal at the 1, the Braves stopped Tillery for a 1-yard loss, then a 2-yard loss, then Howard threw an incompletion and the Jaguars settled for a field goal. Two drives that started on the plus-side of the 50 after turnovers cost Alcorn a mere three points.
“When you get turnovers,” Odums said, “you’ve got to turn them into seven points.”
The goal-line sequence preceding Greg Pittman’s field goal was part of a trend in which the Braves stopped the Jaguars on short-yardage opportunities. Other Southern possessions ended because on third-and-2, it ran for just 1; on third-and-3 it threw an incomplete pass (twice); and on third-and-3 it ran for 1 yard.
Additionally, Alcorn continually extended drives — touchdown drives — because it was able to convert, despite more challenging yardage requirements.
Gibbs’ 50-yard run on the first scoring drive was preceded by a 3-yard run on third and 3. Each of the Braves’ four subsequent touchdown drives featured critical third-down conversions.
On the second touchdown drive, Alcorn benefited from a personal foul penalty against defensive end Donald Phillips at the end of a 1-yard run that should have constituted a stop on third-and-4. Later in the revived drive, the Braves ran for 15 on third-and-2.
On the third touchdown drive, Gibbs threw a 16-yard completion on third-and-9, and he tossed a 3-yard touchdown on third-and-goal with eight seconds left in the first half.
The fourth touchdown drive — which yielded the game’s decisive points — would have been no more than a field goal-drive except Kevin King was called for defensive pass interference on third-and-13 from the Jaguars’ 19.
On the fifth touchdown drive, Alcorn ran for 9 yards on third-and-1, and Gibbs threw a 51-yard touchdown on third-and-9.
Almost without exception, whenever the stakes were inordinately high, the Braves won the particular down.
When Southern blocked a punt and took over at the Alcorn 22 with enough time left to overcome a 14-point deficit, the opportunity vanished because the Braves pushed Malcolm Crockett backward on fourth-and-1.
When the Jaguars got the ball back moments later and were on the verge of making it a one-touchdown deficit, Alcorn forced and recovered a Tillery fumble from the 1.
“It had the makings of coming down to a fantastic ending,” Odums said. “But we didn’t make enough plays to get it to that point.”
And Alcorn made more than enough.
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