HOUSTON — With less than two minutes left in the Southwestern Athletic Conference Championship game, Grambling quarterback Johnathan Williams connected with a familiar target.
Alcorn State defensive back Warren Gatewood intercepted his third pass of the night, putting a fitting end to a 49-21 Braves win on Saturday at NRG Arena.
Gatewood sparked Alcorn early with an interception return for a touchdown and added two more picks in the second half to lead the Braves to back-to-back SWAC championships.
“These are great moments when you can win championships,” Alcorn State coach Jay Hopson said. “I’m just proud to be a part of this journey and be around these young men. It was a great win today.”
When the Braves weren’t forcing turnovers, they were running all over the Tigers on offense.
Alcorn (9-3, 8-2) ran for a school-record 411 yards on the ground, including 188 yards from Darryan Ragsdale, who was named the offensive MVP.
“Rag is such a tremendous runner,” Hobson said. “He has that physical impact and is a next-level back.”
Marquis Warford and quarterback Lenorris Footman also each eclipsed 100 yards and scored a touchdown, while Footman threw for 202 yards and three more touchdowns.
“We knew when the season was over last year that we wanted to be back here,” said Footman, who started in place of injured senior John Gibbs Jr. “We just have a great group of players and a lot of playmakers.”
Grambling (9-3, 9-1) came into the game undefeated in the SWAC, but dug itself too many holes, with five turnovers and only 317 total yards, after coming in averaging 467 yards a game.
“He who turns the ball over, loses. That’s just how it goes,” Grambling coach Broderick Fobbs said. “Sometimes you can overcome those mistakes, but Alcorn did a tremendous job of taking advantage of our mistakes.”
Johnathan Williams completed 19-of-38 passes for 225 yards and a touchdown, but much of it came once the game was out of hand.
“It was a great senior year, but it would have been a lot better to end with a win,” Williams said.
Baton Rouge native Chad Williams led the Tigers with 64 yards receiving, while no running back eclipsed 35 yards.
Grambling started slow during the regular season against Alcorn, but overcame a 14-point halftime deficit to win in overtime.
On Saturday, the Tigers went into halftime trailing by the same score — 28-14.
Three turnovers in the third quarter, however, took away any chance of a comeback.
An interception, fumble and muffed punt all haunted Grambling in the third quarter, as the Braves pulled away 42-12 near the beginning of the fourth quarter.
Gatewood, who was named the game’s defensive MVP, was a big part of that.
“Last time we played Grambling, it was my first time at safety for the whole game,” Gatewood said. “I wasn’t accustomed to that, and I felt I let everyone down. That stuck with me all season.
“Tonight, I got another chance and another opportunity to prove myself. I just made a play on the ball and I was blessed enough to make it.”
Alcorn State got the scoring started with two big plays on back-to-back drives in the first quarter.
Ragsdale ran for an 84-yard touchdown down the Grambling sideline, and minutes later, Gatewood ran back a 24-yard interception to put the Braves up 14-0.
Grambling responded with Jonathan Williams taking a keeper 17 yards to the end zone.
Alcorn then took advantage of some miscommunication in the Grambling secondary when Footman found an uncovered Warford for a 10-yard touchdown and a 21-7 lead.
The Tigers made it 21-14 on a Verlan Hunter 24-yard touchdown catch from Johnathan Williams, but Alcorn again took advantage of a Grambling blown coverage on its next possession.
Warford was once again left uncovered and caught a 28-yard touchdown on a third-and-27 to give the Braves the familiar 28-14 halftime lead.
The Braves cashed in on all of the Grambling turnovers in the third quarter, with Footman scrambling and diving for the pylon for a 9-yard score and 35-14 Braves lead.
Footman added another 5-yard touchdown pass to Jaquaveon Bolles and the Braves got a 37-yard run from Warford to cap off the scoring.
With the victory, Alcorn will advance to the inaugural Celebration Bowl against MEAC champion North Carolina A&T on Dec. 19.
“Today was just a great win,” Hobson said. “It feels great. I’m so proud of these guys.”