MONTGOMERY, Ala. — It was a formula the Alabama State Hornets have used all season.

Force turnovers on defense that lead to big plays on offense. Give up yards, but not points.

Alabama State played the same card for the eighth time in 10 games. This time, the formula didn’t work.

Brian McCain’s 1-yard touchdown run with nine seconds left gave Southern an improbable 26-23 victory over the Hornets at the Cramton Bowl on Saturday afternoon.

Improbable because the Hornets had scored 16 points in the fourth quarter to shake off a sluggish start.

Improbable because the defense, one of the nation’s best at forcing turnovers, had forced three fumbles and intercepted a pass, doing its job to secure another victory.

Stunned as the final seconds ticked off the clock, the Hornets wept openly on the sideline and in their locker room, unable to figure out how they lost not only the game but quite possibly the Southwestern Athletic Conference East Division title as well.

“Today just wasn’t our day, I guess,” said Alabama State safety Kejuan Riley, who intercepted his eighth pass on Saturday, tops in the SWAC and second in the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision. “They didn’t do anything (we didn’t expect). We just came out a little slow. We have to come out faster and harder next time.”

It wasn’t as if Southern did anything Alabama State didn’t expect. The Hornets are noted for giving up yards, especially on the ground. But as teams drive deeper into Hornets territory, they usually find it difficult to reach the end zone.

Southern, by contrast, went 76, 75 and 73 yards on its three touchdown drives, moving the ball effectively inside the red zone against one of the SWAC’s best red-zone defenses.

ASU coach Reggie Barlow pointed at his struggling offense, blaming that unit for keeping his defense on the field all day.

“Offensively, we just weren’t getting it done,” Barlow said. “Our defense is the strength of our team, and we had an opportunity here at the end, with our defense out there, and we couldn’t get a stop.”

Alabama State, following its proven formula, scored with 3:07 left to grab the lead. The Hornets defense, which had survived fourth-quarter challenges by Jackson State, Alcorn State and Prairie View A&M this season, wilted against the Jaguars as J.P. Douglas drove his offense down the field and into the end zone.

“They were able to complete passes on (the final drive) and that’s been our strength all year,” Barlow said. “We’ve had opportunities all year to make plays in the passing game, and we just didn’t get it done this time.”

The Hornets lead the FCS in interceptions and repeatedly had their hands on Douglas passes but only Riley recorded an interception. Alabama State broke up 11 passes.

“It was just missed opportunities,” Barlow said. “You can say we had four or five turnovers, but it could have been eight. We dropped a pick and there were other situations we messed up on.”

Despite the loss, Alabama State still clinched a share of the SWAC East Division championship but will have to wait another week to see who goes to the SWAC Championship game. Alabama A&M owns the tiebreaker over the Hornets but lost on Saturday. A Prairie View victory over Alabama A&M next week would put Prairie View and Alabama State in the SWAC title game.

It’s doubtful any of the Hornets knew Jackson State had defeated Alabama A&M on Saturday. They were too dejected to care.

“It’s very hard,” Riley said. “We have to keep our heads up and keep playing. We have to go into the Turkey Day Classic (with Tuskegee on Thanksgiving) with our heads up high and just hope.”