LORMAN, Miss. — At times Saturday it appeared Southern was ready to not only end its frustration against Alcorn State, but do it in dominant fashion.
But for every explosive offensive play or timely defensive stop the Jaguars made, they mixed in enough mistakes to extend the misery.
The Jaguars watched a fourth quarter lead slip away in the SWAC championship game for the second consecutive year as the Braves took a 39-24 victory at Jack Spinks Stadium.
Instead of Southern (8-5) breaking through against its nemesis and into the Celebration Bowl, the Jaguars lost for the 10th time in 11 meetings. Alcorn (9-3) moves on to play North Carolina A&T for the black college national championship in Atlanta on Dec. 21.
For the second time this season, Southern left points on the field. Despite outgaining the Braves 257-107 in the first half, the Jaguars trailed 16-14. Twice Southern took the lead in the second half but six turnovers, a safety and myriad other errors combined to overwhelm an otherwise stout effort.
“It was pretty tough,” said senior Calvin Lunkins, who led Southern with 12 tackles and went 1-6 against Alcorn in his career. “We had our 60 minutes so that’s why I’m not crying or anything like that. I feel like we played hard and I can live with that. They made some more plays than we did.”
Alcorn also made fewer mistakes. Southern turned the ball over four times in the first half but even then its hopes weren’t snuffed out until the final one. Taurence Wilson picked off a Ladarius Skelton pass and returned it 53 yards for the clinching score with 1:12 left.
It was Skelton’s third interception and he also lost two fumbles while completing 18 of 30 passes for 159 yards, and was sacked three times. But in the second half he was only five of 13 for 41 yards. On his second interception, he underthrew and open Hunter Register in the end zone.
Skelton ran for two TDs, including an eight-yard run to give Southern its last lead 24-22, with 8:43 left. It was emblematic in an up-and-down performance that capped an up-and-down season for the junior from Pine Bluff, Arkansas.
“Both teams made a lot of mistakes but we made more,” Southern coach Dawson Odums said. “We had six turnovers, you give up a special teams touchdown and before you know the game is starting to get out of reach. Defensively, I thought those guys gave us a chance when we couldn’t get anything going in the first half.
“We ran the ball much better this time around and we just had some untimely turnovers. Our quarterback didn’t play up to the level that he had been. These games either make you out to be something or they break you down. For our team, this hurt. It’s hard to get back to this point. The team that we’ve had the least amount of success against, it seems like they always find a way. We have to keep chopping away.”
Southern came out looking like a different team than the one that was dominated in the second half of a 27-13 loss on the same field Oct. 26. Led by cornerback Tamaurice Smith, who had an interception and three pass breakups, the Jaguars stymied SWAC Offensive Player of the Year Felix Harper, who torched them for 277 yards and two TDs in the first meeting.
Harper finally broke through and gave Alcorn a 22-17 lead with a 56-yard scoring pass to LeCharles Pringle, who caught five balls for 145 yards. After Skelton’s TD run, Harper drove his team 63 yards to take the lead for good on Corey McCullough’s 23-yard field goal with 5:07 left.
Southern was still in good shape after a 34-yard kickoff return by Kentric Jones put the ball at the Southern 39. On fourth and one at the 43, Skelton handed the ball to freshman Jarod Sims, who rushed for 149 yards on 20 carries, both career highs. Sims was stopped cold by Qwynnterrio Cole and three plays later, DeShawn Waller padded the lead with a six-yard TD run.
Southern still had hope, needing a touchdown and two-point conversion to tie but Wilson’s pick-six sealed Alcorn’s second consecutive league title.
“You talk about two teams that go out and play this game the way it’s supposed to be played,” Alcorn coach Fred McNair said. “Hats off to coach Odums. That’s a solid football team. They played hard.
“It was two teams fighting their butts off to get a win. We did a great job of fighting through adversity. We made some adjustments in the second half, moved the ball and scored some touchdowns.”
The game featured a messy start. The teams combined for four turnovers before either scored a point. Sims broke the deadlock with a 32-yard scoring run and Alcorn answered quickly. Javen Morrison returned the ensuing kickoff 89 yards to tie the game at 7.
Alcorn took the lead with the help of two more Southern mistakes and no input from its offense. Brandon Hinton fumbled the ensuing kickoff out of bounds at the Southern 3. Two plays later a holding penalty in the end zone gave Alcorn a safety.
Skelton gave the Jaguars the lead with his 3-yard run to cap a 70-yard drive but Alcorn answered quickly, going 75 yards in four plays to make it a 16-14 halftime lead on Trey Turners’s 3-yard run.
“We were supposed to be here and had a chance to change the outcome,” Odums said. “We knew it was going to be a tall order, and we didn’t get it done. These guys can be proud how they turned their season around. The 1-3 start didn’t define them. This championship game will not define them.”