BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – The Alcorn State University football team won its first Southwestern Athletic Conference Championship Game in program history Saturday, claiming its first league title since 1993 in storybook fashion at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas. Braves quarterback John Gibbs Jr. returned to his hometown of Houston, completing 20 of 30 passes for 245 yards and three touchdowns to lead Alcorn to a 38-24 victory over defending SWAC Champion Southern University in front of 39,583 fans in the home of the NFL’s Houston Texas.
Gibbs, the game's Offensive Most Valuable Player and a graduate of the city's historic Booker T. Washington High School, rushed for 137 yards and caught a pass for five yards. His performance broke Alcorn legend Steve McNair’s single-season rushing record by a quarterback and made Gibbs the first quarterback to rush for 1,000 yard season in school history. He distributed the ball effectively, finding eight different receivers with none of them finishing with more than 51 yards receiving.
"It meant a lot to play in front of friends and family," Gibbs said. "Our defense told us 'score a touchdown, and we will stop them'."
And they sure did. Alcorn senior linebacker William Thomas II earned Defensive MVP honors after leading the Braves with nine tackles. The Braves' defense held Southern to just one offensive touchdown. The Jaguars' other 17 points came on a punt return, a punt block recovery and a field goal.
"We played really well on offense and defense and horrible on special teams," Alcorn State head coach Jay Hopson said. "We hadn't had a punt blocked all season, and today, we had two. We have a pretty resilient football team."
The Braves dominated the game statistically, but their special teams woes allowed the Jaguars to stay in contention as late as the fourth quarter. They outgained Southern 480 to 268, including 230 to 108 on the ground.
Hopson said his team was eager to reach the SWAC Championship this season after missing it by a single point in 2013.
"That sat on these guys' minds for 365 days, and they worked even harder to get here," Hopson said.
Both programs have rebuilt within a relatively quick period. Alcorn was 2-8 three years ago and Hopson arrived in 2012.
"He showed us how to come together as a team and get things done," Thomas II said.
Southern had struggled in the seasons prior to Dawson Odums being promoted to head coach.
"Today was a good football game -- we had peaks and valleys," Odums said. "Defeat makes you better – if you learn from it. We had a great season, and I take my hat off to Alcorn State."
Southern freshman quarterback Austin Howard completed 15 of 30 passes for 152 yards.
Alcorn, making its first appearance in the SWAC Championship Game, found out that nothing comes easy in the postseason.
After routing Southern, 56-16, on Sept. 27 in Lorman, Miss., the Jaguars (9-4) bounced back to win seven consecutive games.
On Saturday, Alcorn (10-3) built a quick 17-3 lead but had to fend off several Jaguar rallies, including a pair of block punts by Southern junior Mason Ceaser, one of which resulted in a touchdown for the Jaguars.
Next season, Gibbs will have an opportunity to come back to Houston and defend the conference title in a significant place for the Braves.
It's the city where the late Steve McNair, the most prestigious Alcorn football alum, began his NFL career with the Houston Oilers in 1995. It's also the city where former Braves wide receiver and eventual Green Bay Packers All-Pro wide receiver Donald Driver grew up.
"We should move all of our home games to Houston," Hopson joked, during the postgame press conference.
The SWAC began a conference championship game in 1999, six years after McNair, then an Alcorn junior, led the Braves to the league championship. Many of the current Alcorn players hadn't been born when McNair's team won the crown, and others were infants and toddlers.
The victory was special for the McNair family, since Steve's older brother, Fred, is the Braves' quarterbacks coach.
Alcorn's victory marked the first time since 2007, and second time ever, that a Mississippi-based school won the SWAC Championship Game. Jackson State defeated Grambling State, 42-31, in the 2007 title game.
Alcorn built an early lead on a 13-yard touchdown pass from Gibbs Jr. to fellow junior Jordan Payne with 11:05 in the first quarter. The Braves followed that up with a 27-yard field goal by sophomore kicker Haiden McCraney with 2:34 in the first.
Alcorn stifled Southern's offense at the 1-yard-line, which resulted in Jaguars junior Greg Pittman kicking a 21-yard field goal with 3:44 in the second.
The Braves got their running game going with senior Anthony Williams III scoring on a 12-yard run with 8:20 in the second quarter, extending the Alcorn lead to 17-3.
The Jaguars bounced back quickly, scoring on an 86-yard punt return by junior Willie Quinn, who didn't have a Braves defender anywhere in sight on his remarkable run.
Alcorn picked up a much-needed boost with just eight seconds left in the first half when Gibbs Jr. completed a 3-yard-touchdown pass to senior wide receiver Billy Shed for a 24-10 halftime advantage.
In the second half, Southern tied the game within a span of 2:03. Junior running back Malcolm Crockett scored on a 2-yard run with 12:14, and at 10:11, freshmen Dennis Craig recovered Ceaser's blocked punt, tying the game.
The lead didn't last long as Williams III scored on a 4-yard run with 4:55 in the third, and Gibbs Jr threw his third touchdown pass – a 51-yard throw (with 14:12 in the game) one to redshirt junior Brandon Vessell, who grew up in Baton Rouge, not far from the Southern campus for a 38-24 lead.