LORMAN, Miss. — The battle for the SWAC Championship turned into a battle of quarterbacks between Alcorn State and Southern.
The Jaguars couldn’t keep theirs on the field for quite enough plays.
Alcorn quarterback Noah Johnson seized control when Southern’s LaDarius Skelton was hurt and led the Braves to the league title in a 37-28 victory at Spinks-Casem Stadium on Saturday.
Skelton had rallied the Jaguars from a two-touchdown deficit to take a 28-27 lead with a pair of scoring runs. But when Alcorn took the lead on a field goal, Southern’s next drive stalled after Skelton injured an ankle on a horse-collar tackle.
John Lampley replaced Skelton and moved Southern to the Alcorn 32-yard line, but Skelton returned and threw incomplete on fourth down to end the drive. Johnson then drove his team 68 yards for the clinching score on a 14-yard scoring run by De’Shawn Waller with 3:47 left.
Skelton tried to rally his team but was clearly hobbled by the injury. He threw incomplete three times and was sacked on fourth down to end the Jaguars’ last chance.
“Oh, man that’s tough, to work that hard to get here,” Southern coach Dawson Odums said. “We lost to a good football team. I was proud of the way our guys kept fighting. We got behind and battled back. It was tough to come up a little short.”
The victory lifted the Braves (9-3) to their 17th conference title and first since 2014. Alcorn will play in the Celebration Bowl against North Carolina A&T on Dec. 15 in Atlanta, likely to determine the black college national championship.
“Champions in the house,” Johnson shouted as he entered the post-game news conference after being named offensive player of the game.
It was the first conference title for third-year Alcorn coach Fred McNair.
“I can’t say enough about these guys,” McNair said. “Finally we got a 60-minute ballgame as we expected all year.”
Southern saw its five-game winning streak ended and finished 7-4.
Skelton ran for three touchdowns and passed for a fourth, totaling 194 yards passing and 65 rushing. Trey Smith led Southern with seven catches for 120 yards, including a 22-yard TD catch.
Johnson topped that effort with 16 carries for 147 yards rushing and 18-of-25 passing for 194 yards. Waller finished with 177 yards and three touchdowns on 16 carries.
The first meeting between the teams produced 23 points combine in a 20-3 defensive struggle won by Alcorn. The teams surpassed that in the first quarter Saturday with 28 combined points.
“We got better from the first time we played this team,” Odums said. “We just didn’t do enough to win this game. We made some plays; we just didn’t make enough.”
But Alcorn jolted the Southern defense on a third-and-1 play to take a 21-14 lead with 43 seconds left in the first half.
Johnson went left on a read-option keeper, turned one defender around with a fake and stayed outside for a 44-yard scoring run. The Braves piled up 347 yards to 168 for Southern as Johnson rushed for 102 and passed for 107 on 14 of 16 completions.
The Jaguars scored on their opening possession after Chris Chaney returned the opening kickoff 24 yards. Devon Benn kept it alive with a 3-yard run on fourth-and 1 and on the next play, Skelton turned right end on an option keeper for 28 yards and a 7-0 lead with 12:26 left.
A third-down pass interference by Southern aided Alcorn’s answering score on a 75-yard drive capped by Waller’s 13-yard run. The next time Waller touched the ball he went 83 yards to make it 14-7.
Back came the Jaguars on their next possession. A 23-yard run by Benn set up an nice 22-yard TD pass from Skelton to Trey Smith. Skelton threaded the ball between two Braves defenders near the right sideline to tie the game with 2:43 left in the first quarter.
The Braves overcame 10 first-half penalties for 90 yards, one of which nullified a 31-yard scoring run by Waller, who rushed for 105 yards on five carries in the first half.
“They do a good job with the weakside running game,” Odums said. “Those backs are as good as advertised. They do a good job of finding those little creases and they run behind their pads. They’re physical runners.
“They’re a good football team. They make you pay for your mistakes. That’s often what happened tonight.”