HOUSTON — Trailing Alcorn State by seven points in the fourth quarter, Southern forced the Braves into a third-and-long from their own territory.
With momentum swinging in their favor, the Jaguars were one stop away from getting the ball back and going for a potential tying or winning drive.
Instead, Alcorn State quarterback John Gibbs Jr. found Brandon Vessell wide open down the right sideline for a 51-yard, game-clinching touchdown.
The big play was just one of several third-down breakdowns for Southern’s defense that led the Braves to a 38-24 win in the Southwestern Athletic Conference Championship Game at NRG Stadium.
Southern’s defense allowed the Braves to convert 7 of 16 third-down opportunities with a mixture of big plays and a pair of 15-yard penalties that all led to Alcorn points.
“We just didn’t get the job done,” Southern coach Dawson Odums said. “(Alcorn) made a lot of plays. We had some opportunities, but we just couldn’t cash them in.
“We had a blown coverage and gave up a touchdown. On another one, we sack the quarterback down to the ground, and they are going to have to punt, but we get a personal foul penalty.”
It was an eerily similar scene to when the Braves converted 12-of-16 third- and fourth-down chances when the SU defense could not get off the field when the Braves beat SU by 40 points in September.
On Saturday in Houston, it was more of the same. The Braves dominated time of possession 37:05-22:55 and finished with 480 yards.
De’Andre Woodland led the Jaguars defense with 12 tackles and an interception, while Dionte McDuffy had 11 tackles and Bryan Anderson 10.
“They pretty much ran the ball down our throats,” Southern senior defensive end Arthur Miley said. “We had a couple drives where we stopped them, but it was tough.”
Southern was in position to hold the Braves to a field goal on their first possession of the game, but Alcorn converted a third-and-7 from the Southern 13 when Gibbs found Jordan Payne for a touchdown.
The Jaguars had some momentum after pulling within seven points in the second quarter and looked to get the ball back after a big sack on third down. But a 15-yard unnecessary roughness call on defensive end Donald Phillips gave the Braves a first down near midfield.
Six players later, Alcorn scored to take a 14-point lead.
“You’ve got to be smart, but he didn’t hear the whistle,” Odums said.
On a third-and-9 from the Southern 17 with less than a minute to go before halftime, Gibbs connected with Charles Hughes for 16 yards.
Three players later on third-and-goal, Gibbs hit Billy Shed for a touchdown seconds before halftime to put the Braves up 24-3.
Alcorn converted 5 of 8 third downs in the first half, while outgaining the Jaguars 321-75 in total yards.
It was more of the same in the second half.
On a third-and-7 from the Southern 19, a pass interference call on Kevin King gave the Braves a first down. Two plays later, Anthony Williams scored from 4 yards out to break a 24-24 tie.
Then came the back-breaker, with Vessell catching a 51-yard pass on a third-and-9 to give the Braves a 14-point lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
“I take my hat off to Alcorn State,” Odums said. “They played better than us today, and they deserved to win the football game.”