LORMAN – On the first chilly, brisk Saturday of the 2016 football season – when it felt like football season and not like summer – Alcorn State put an exclamation point on season’s end.
Trailing 16-14 at halftime, the Braves reeled off 21 unanswered points in the second half for a 35-16 victory over arch-rival Jackson State in the rivalry that has long been known as the Soul Bowl.
It was, all in all, a splendid day to be an Alcorn Brave, which is what 47-year-old head coach Fred “The Original Air” McNair has been for practically all his life. You had a Jack Spinks-Marino Casem Stadium standing-room-only crowd of 27,297, not to mention hundreds upon hundreds more tail-gating around this gorgeous campus. You had Alcorn State, victors over their arch-rivals and SWAC Eastern Division Champions for the third straight season. And you had one of the school’s all-time football heroes, older brother of the incomparable Steve McNair, hoisting the division championship trophy over his head afterward.
Alcorn was headed to the SWAC Championship game in Houston, regardless of the outcome of Saturday’s rivalry game. But of this you can rest assured: The ride to Houston will be a lot smoother and more enjoyable with a 5-5 record and a victory over JSU than it would have been at 4-6 and on the heels of a loss to JSU. Had that have been the case, the Braves bus might as well have made the trip in reverse.
“Our guys never quit,” Fred McNair said. “They have fought hard in the face of adversity all season. We’ve had so many injuries, so many things go wrong. I’ve got to hand it to my staff and the players for staying together and then putting it all together in the second half today.”
As so many big games do, this one turned in the kicking game. Alcorn still trailed 16-14 late in the third quarter when LaDarrien Davis broke through and blocked a Jackson State punt. Muhammad Solom scooped it up and dashed 59 yards down the JSU sideline for the go-ahead score.
The blocked punt pleased McNair; it did not surprise him. After all, the Braves already had blocked four punts this season.
“That’s been happening all year,” McNair said. “We work on that all the time. Really, I thought it was just a matter of time before we got one.”
Alcorn tacked on two fourth quarter touchdowns while its defense poured through the JSU offensive line like fast-flowing water through a sieve.
“Once momentum swung in their favor, we never got it back,” Tony Hughes, Jackson State’s first-year head coach, said.
The most telling statistic: Jackson State ran the ball 29 times for 51 yards. Alcorn, with sturdy De’Lance Turner leading charge, ran it 47 times for 293 yards. Turner, himself, carried 19 times for 129 yards and a touchdown. When one team wins the line of scrimmage as convincingly as that stat indicates, the result is fairly predictable.
That surely didn’t make it any easier to stomach for Hughes, the man who took more than a $100,000 pay cut for the chance to become a head coach. Hughes, whose Tigers finished 3-8, finally blew a gasket after a season filled with frustration late in the second quarter.
You or I would have, too. Trust me.
With the score tied at 14 and Jackson State moving in Alcorn territory, the Braves signaled for a timeout to set up its defense for a crucial third down play. Coming out of the timeout, JSU lined up with 10 players and an 11th running onto the field. The Tigers were penalized for delay of game. Then, JSU let the play clock run down to a point when Hughes had to call still another timeout to avoid another delay penalty. That’s when he lost it. He snatched his headset off his head and flung it. The wires tangled, so he snatched it and flung it again. And then again. The third time was sort of a charm. The headset broke.
My educated guess is that Hughes will recruit his way out of this prolonged JSU slump and enjoy much better days as a head coach.
Fred McNair could well have better days, too, but late Saturday afternoon with the sun setting behind the stadium and the Braves band playing the “Alcorn Ode,” a much better day for the original Air McNair was hard to imagine.
Rick Cleveland is Mississippi Today’s sports columnist. Read his previous columns and his Sports Daily blog. Reach Rick at firstname.lastname@example.org.