HOUSTON (AP) — It took 20 years, but Alcorn State can once again be called champions.
John Gibbs, Jr. threw for 245 yards and three touchdowns on Saturday to lead Alcorn State to a 38-24 win over the Southern for their first win in the Southwestern Athletic Conference championship game.
Gibbs was 20 of 30 and added 132 yards rushing as Alcorn State (10-3) won its first conference championship since 1994 when they were co-champions with Grambling State and first outright since 1992.
“John played tremendous,” Alcorn State coach Jay Hopson said. “He has been our leader since he has been here. He started since he was a true freshman. We threw him into the fire. . John has been tremendous this whole season.”
The Braves were making their first appearance in the SWAC championship, which started in 1999.
“All the credit goes to these guys,” Hopson said pointing to Gibbs as well as defender Will Thomas II. “It’s a special feeling in my heart just to watch them. They have worked so hard to achieve their goals, and they have been so dedicated. It means a whole lot. It’s as far as we can go. It’s a great feeling. This is the reason you put the cleats on.”
Arron Baker had 12 carries for 58 yards, and Anthony Williams III rushed for 26 yards and two touchdowns — a 12-yard run in the second quarter and a 4-yard score with 4:55 left in the third that put Alcorn State ahead for good.
“They ran the ball pretty much down our throat,” Southern defender Arthur Miley said. “The first time we played them, they ran it well, too. At the end, we started going back to our way and stopping them, but I guess it was too late.”
Gibbs found Brandon Vessell for a 51-yard touchdown pass to up Alcorn’s lead to 38-24 early in the fourth.
“It meant a lot knowing that my family and friends were behind me,” Gibbs, who was playing in his hometown, said. “The defense got some key stops. We had some three-and-outs, and we weren’t able to move the ball, but the defense got some key stops, and we were able to pull this out.”
Austin Howard was 15 of 30 for 152 yards, and Lenard Tillery had 55 yards on 14 carries and 60 yards on four catches for Southern (9-4), which struggled on offense for most of the night. The Jaguars, who were going for back-to-back SWAC championships, were outgained 321-75 in total yards in the first half and finished with 268 yards compared to Alcorn’s 480.
“In this game, you have to be able to handle defeat,” Southern coach Dawson Odums said. “Defeat makes you better. Nobody likes to lose, and it’s unfortunate for our guys, but we had a great season. We just came up a little short today.”
Malcolm Crocket had the Jaguars’ lone offensive score with a 2-yard touchdown less than three minutes into the second half to cut the Braves’ lead to 24-17.
With Southern’s offense struggling, the special teams kept the Jaguars in the game.
Southern tied it at 24 with Mason Ceaser’s blocked punt which Audry Thompson picked up and ran back 9 yards for the touchdown. Willie Quinn cut the Braves’ lead to 17-10 with an 86-yard punt return for a touchdown with three minutes left in the first half.
“We had opportunities,” Odums said. “When you get stops, you have to turn them into seven against good teams. … They made more plays than we did.”
Southern had a chance to cut Alcorn’s lead back to seven after Ceaser blocked another punt that put the Jaguars at the Braves’ 22, but on fourth-and-1 at the 13, Crocket was stuffed for a loss of 2. The Jaguars had one more chance to cut the lead to seven with 4 ½ minutes left, but Tillery fumbled at the goal line, and Alcorn recovered.
“We have a pretty resilient football team,” Hopson said. “Our offense and defense was good. They just fought hard and kept competing. It is just a credit to them with their desire and determination.”
Gibbs connected on a 13-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Payne four minutes into the first to start the scoring, and Billy Shed hauled in a diving 3-yard score from Gibbs right before halftime to extend Alcorn’s lead to 24-10.