Grambling State escaped with a 40-32 victory Saturday at NRG Stadium in Houston in what may have been the last SWAC Championship Game, extending the G-Men’s conference winning streak to 26 consecutive games and giving them their second consecutive berth in the Celebration Bowl.
But fourth-year coach Broderick Fobbs wasn’t a happy camper after the Tigers (11-1), champion of the West Division, had allowed a game that had been a laugher early in the fourth quarter – they led by 30 points – to come down to the final play.
“I saw the momentum shift and start to leave,’’ said Fobbs, who improved his record to 32-2 against SWAC opponents. “Once it goes, it starts to snowball and you can’t get it back and you’re holding on for dear life. I think we learned a very valuable lesson that you have to play for four quarters, especially when you’re playing against very good teams.’’
The victory, the 11th in a row for the G-Men this season, gave Grambling its eighth victory in 10 championship game appearances and its 23rd SWAC championship overall. The G-Men, the defending Black College National Champions will face unbeaten North Carolina A&T (11-0), the MEAC champion and the top-ranked team in the Black College polls, in the Celebration Bowl in Atlanta on Dec. 16. Grambling is No. 2 in the Black College polls.
Before the season began, SWAC Commissioner Duer Sharp announced that the conference would discontinue its championship game in order to focus on the Celebration Bowl. That may or may not be case, however. Sharp resigned as Commissioner two days before the game, and the conference athletic directors have proposed that the championship game be continued in a revamped format. The conference’s Council of Presidents will vote on the proposal.
The championship game has been billed as Judgment Day during its 18-year run that began in Birmingham, Ala., in 1999 and moved to Houston four years ago. Given the game’s uncertain future, and the fact that Grambling and Alcorn were facing each other in the title game for the third straight year after splitting the previous two meetings, Saturday’s contest was more like the Final Judgment.
Alcorn’s 49-21 victory in the 2015 championship game was the G-Men’s last SWAC loss. The G-Men came into this year’s title game having beaten the Braves three straight times, including a 41-14 victory on the Reservation as Alcorn committed seven turnovers. The Braves, the East champions, cut their turnovers to two this time out, but their improvement taking care of the ball wasn’t enough to get them past the G-Men.
Grambling started the game in inauspicious fashion. The G-Men’s first offensive series started at their 10-yard line after Carter fumbled the opening kickoff, and they were flagged for delay of the game on their first play from scrimmage. However, quarterback Devante Kincade, the 2017 SWAC Offensive Player of the Year and championship game Offensive MVP, quickly righted the ship. Kincade, who accounted for 298 total yards – 223 passing and 75 rushing — drove the Tigers 90 yards for a touchdown, scoring himself on a 27-yard run. His touchdown marked the seventh time they have scored on their opening possession.
Alcorn (7-5) responded to the G-Men’s score by driving 80 yards to even things up on the scoreboard at 7-7. All 80 yards came on running plays with running back De’Lance Turner getting the touchdown on a two-yard run. The teams traded field goals with Marc Orozco booting a 46-yarder for Grambling and Corey McCullough nailing a 21-yarder for Alcorn, and the score was tied at 10-all going into the second quarter. Turner, the SWAC’s leading rusher with 1,355 yards, led the Braves’ ground game with 134 yards.
The second quarter was all Grambling with Kincade leading the way. Kincade accounted for three touchdowns in the period, and the G-Men built a 38-10 halftime lead with Kincade scoring on a 14-yard run and throwing touchdown passes of 15 and four yards to Jordan Jones and Quinton Guice, respectively. Carter scored on a five-yard yard run as Grambling topped the 30-point mark for the ninth time this season.
The G-Men rolled into halftime with 363 total yards, and the Final Judgment appeared to have been rendered in their favor. However, their offense disappeared after intermission and only mustered 76 yards and no points in the final two periods. The Grambling defense accounted for Grambling’s only second-half points when Brandon Varner tackled Turner in the end zone on Alcorn’s first play of the fourth quarter.
The onset of the G-Men’s offensive ineffectiveness coincided with Kincade leaving the game in the third quarter with a head injury. Red-shirt freshman Geremy Hickbottom replaced Kincade and finished the game. Hickbottom completed four of seven pass attempts for 45 yards.
“I’m very disappointed with the way we played in the fourth quarter,’’ said Fobbs. “That’s not Grambling football on both sides. We’ve got to learn to put people away. I’m glad we won the SWAC championship. But I’m very disappointed with our play.’’
Alcorn, making its fourth straight championship game appearance, mounted a furious fourth-quarter rally. Quarterback LeNorris Footman, who threw for 307 yards, got the Braves’ rally started with a 34-yard touchdown pass to Norlando Veals. Footman then scored on a five-yard run, and Turner added a five-yard touchdown run. A successful two-point conversion put Alcorn in position to tie the score with 1:50 remaining in the game. Grambling recovered the Braves’ onside kick following Turner’s touchdown, but they went three-and-out.
Alcorn got the ball back at its two-yard line with 46 seconds remaining. Footman drove them to Grambling’s 43 in 10 plays, but his fourth down Hail Mary pass was short of the end zone and incomplete as time expired.
“The second half we played I was very impressed with,” said Alcorn coach Fred McNair, who has guided the Braves to back-to-back championship appearances in his two seasons at the helm. “The way this team fought back, we did a great job of doing that.’’
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