The third time was a charm Saturday for Alcorn State and third-year Coach Fred “Air’’ McNair.
The former Braves All-SWAC quarterback had guided Alcorn to the SWAC Football Championship Game each of his previous two seasons on the Reservation but came up a loser each time.
It was a different tale this time around for the Braves, who were making their fifth consecutive championship game appearance overall, as they came from behind to defeat Southern 37-28 at Spinks- Casem Stadium on the Alcorn campus.
“I thank God for the opportunity to coach here,’’ said McNair, the older brother of the late Steve “Air II’’ McNair, an All-American quarterback at Alcorn and the 2003 NFL co-MVP. “I can’t say enough about this opportunity to be the head coach at this University and helping these young men grow up, not only as players but also as adults.”
The victory gives the Braves (9-3) their third conference crown in the Championship Game era and 16th overall. They will face MEAC champ North Carolina A&T in the fourth Celebration Bowl on Dec. 15 in Atlanta, The contest will be a rematch of the inaugural Celebration Bowl, which North Carolina A&T won 41-34.
Alcorn used its familiar formula of a balanced, high-powered offense and an aggressive defense to claim the victory. The Braves piled up 518l yards total offense while averaging 7.3 yards a play. Their one-two punch of quarterback Noah Johnson and running back De’Shawn Waller, the 2018 SWAC Offensive Player of the Year and Newcomer of the Year, respectively, were the offensive workhorses for Alcorn.
Johnson completed 18 of 25 passes for 135 yards, ran 16 times for 147 yards and two touchdowns while compiling 282 yards total offense. He was named the 2018 SWAC Championship Game MVP.
Waller gained 177 yards – 20 shy of the Championship Game record set by Alcorn Darryan Ragsdale in 2015 against Grambling State – on 16 carries for a gaudy 11.1 yards a carry, and he scored three touchdowns.
Waller scored on runs of 13 and 83 yards in the first quarter as Alcorn took a 14-7 lead. His 14-yard scoring run with 3:47 remaining in the game sealed the victory for the Braves after Corey McCullough’s 41-yard field goal earlier in the fourth quarter put them on top 30-28. Waller’s 83-yard run was he second-longest in Championship Game history. Ragsdale had an 84-yard run
Alcorn’s defense, which led the FCS with 45 sacks, played to form. The Braves added to that number as they got to Southern quarterback LaDarius Skelton six times. The Jaguars had only allowed 14 sacks during the season.
“Coming into this ball game, it was what we thought it was going to be,’’ McNair said, “a tough ball game. I give this Southern team a lot of credit. They played a hard game. I can’t say enough about this whole group we have here at Alcorn and the way we played this game. We finally put together a 60-minute ball game. We’ve been expecting this the whole year and it’s been a long time coming. They went out there and executed.’’
Southern (7-4) came into the game on a five-game winning streak, which coincided with Skelton replacing John Lampley as the Jaguars’ starter. The move came following a humbling 20-3 Homecoming loss to Alcorn, which has now beaten the Jaguars six times in their last seven meetings.
Southern outscored opponents by almost 28 points a game with Skelton calling signals as the sophomore from Pine Bluff, Ark., threw for 803 yards with a 9-to-1 touchdown pass to interception ratio and ran for 465 yards and five touchdowns. Skelton couldn’t work his magic against the Braves, however. He did show some flashes.
Skelton threw for 194 yards, including a 42-yard touchdown pass to Trey Smith in the first quarter that tied the score at 14-all, and he was the Jaguars’ leading rusher with 66 yards and three touchdowns. His three-yard scoring run with 3:56 left in the third quarter gave Southern a 28-27 lead.
Skelton left the game after suffering a leg injury when an Alcorn defender brought him down with a horse collar tackle that resulted in a 15-yard penalty against the Braves. Skelton returned to the game but it was obvious that he had limited mobility. He threw three incomplete passes and was sacked on Southern’s final possession.
“We lost to a good football team,’’ Southern coach Dawson Odums said. “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.”
Liberty 52, Norfolk State 17
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Roscoe Nance is a veteran freelance sports journalist who has covered Black College Football throughout his 43-year career. He retired from USA TODAY after writing for the Nation’s Newspaper for 21 years, during which time he covered college sports, soccer, tennis and the NBA. He has also written for The Columbus (Ga.) Enquirer and The (Jackson, Miss.) Clarion-Ledger.
The Tuskegee (Institute) University graduate, who hails from Union Springs, Ala., was inducted into the SWAC Hall of Fame in 2014 for his coverage of the conference during his time writing for The Clarion-Ledger. He currently co-hosts the online sports talk show Express Yourself With T-Ramone And Sco with Atlanta sports journalist Tim Turner, and he is Chairman of the Black College Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee.