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By Lut Williams
Black College Sports Page

West Division champ Grambling State and head coach Broderick Fobbs are looking to put the finishing touches on a return to greatness story that their opponent Saturday in the SWAC Championship Game at Houston’s NRG Stadium, East Division champ Alcorn State, just recently completed.bcsp flag 125

Alcorn State, under departed coach Jay Hopson, has won the last two SWAC championship games. Those titles were the first for the storied Braves’ program in 20 years dating back to the days of late great quarterback Steve “Air” McNair.

Now with McNair’s older brother Fred – an assistant under Hobson and former Alcorn quarterback – calling the shots, the 5-5 Braves will go for a championship three-peat Saturday. Grambling was the last three-peater winning titles in 2000, 2001 and 2002 under Doug Williams.

The drought for Grambling, a program with a record 23 SWAC titles, has obviously not been nearly as long as Alcorn’s, but the re-emergence of the G-Men has been no less dramatic.

Under third-year head coach Broderick Fobbs’ steady guidance, Grambling has surfaced from perhaps the darkest period in its glorious history to be on the verge of once again becoming the standard bearer in HBCU football.

Grambling enters Saturday’s 3 p.m. title game as the consensus No. 1 HBCU team in the nation including being first in the BCSP Top Ten. The 9-1 Tigers are riding a nine-game win streak with a bevy of playmakers that have them atop both SWAC and HBCU offensive and defensive statistical categories. Grambling averages 44 points and over 500 yards per game and has won its nine SWAC contests by an average score of 46-14. That includes a 43-18 win over Alcorn State on Sept. 24.

A win Saturday would give them their 24th SWAC title and put them in a December 17th showdown with MEAC champion and consensus No. 2 North Carolina Central (9-2) in the 2nd annual Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl at the Atlanta Georgia Dome for the 2016 HBCU national championship.

Prior to Fobbs’ arrival in 2014, Grambling suffered thru back-to-back one-win seasons and internal turmoil that included a player revolt that saw the team fail to show up to a SWAC game at Jackson State. It began with the early 2013 in-season firing of playing and coaching legend Williams, who also coached Grambling to its last SWAC title in 2011. Grambling went through three coaches in two seasons before Fobbs took over.

Fobbs played for legendary head coach Eddie Robinson and finished his playing career in 1997, the final year of the venerable coach’s 55-year career. He spent over a decade as an assistant on the collegiate level at Louisiana-Lafayette, Northwestern State, McNeese State and Southern Miss before returning to his alma mater. He has employed many of Coach Robinson’s maxims in posting a 26-9 record over the past three seasons.

As he was rebuilding the Grambling brand and rehabilitating its image, there were signs he had things on the right track. While Alcorn was winning back-to-back titles and earning its third straight trip to the title game this year, Fobbs posted a 3-1 record against the Braves. The only loss was in last year’s SWAC title game, 49-21. His Tigers have improved each year finishing 7-5, 9-3 and 10-1 during his tenure. (His tenth win was an unsanctioned season-opening win over Virginia-Lynchburg that does not appear in the standings).

The Tigers gave an indication of their prowess in a Sept. 10 game this year against FBS Pac-12 member Arizona. They sprinted out to a 21-3 halftime lead before starting quarterback Devante Kincade, a transfer from Ole Miss, went down with a hamstring injury late in the second quarter. Prior to going out, Kincade had hit on 15 of 19 passes for two touchdowns in the first half and had the Tigers on a roll. Without the dynamic Kincade at the controls, Grambling turned the ball over six times in the second half while being shutout in a 31-21 loss. With him, they might have pulled off one of the biggest shockers of the 2016 season.

Kincade has hardly missed a beat or play since. He enters the championship game atop SWAC stats in passing yards (263.3 yards per game), passing efficiency (172.3 with 27 TDs and just 3 interceptions), completion percentage (187 of 287, 65.2%) and total offense (290.4 yards per game). The junior would be a shoo-in for the SWAC offensive player of the year award but may have to share it with Southern senior running back Lenard Tillery who broke the league single-season and career rushing marks this season.

Kincade’s supporting cast is no less impressive. The Tigers can thump you with 5-11, 240-pound running back Jestin Kelly (781 yards, 8 TDs) or stun you with lightning quick 5-8, 175-pound back Martez Carter (646 yards, 8 TDs). They are third and fourth in SWAC rushing stats. The Tigers’ pair of 6-2 wide receivers, Chad Kelly (80 receptions, 1,191 yards, 10 TDs) and Verlan Hunter (45 receptions, 6 TDs), are match-up nightmares.

The defense, led by linebacker Arkez Cooper (58 tackles) and defensive back Guy Stallworth (58 tackles) and anchored by 6-4, 294-pound nose tackle Lorin Blain-Winston, gives up a paltry 16.4 points per game and leads the SWAC in just about every statistical category.

Alcorn State lost 26 players to graduation including the entire secondary off high-scoring 9-3 and 10-3 championship teams under Hopson. In McNair’s first year, the Braves have struggled with injuries. The top two receivers went down early and were lost for the season. Aaron Baker, the returning rushing leader, has played in only six games. Playmaker extraordinaire Marquis Watford has appeared in just two. Two starters on the defensive line also went down with injuries and have not returned.

The injuries have hampered their ability to put up big numbers, but they were still able to take the East Division title with a 5-4 record, beating all the teams in the East but losing four games to West Division teams. A devastating early season 45-43 loss in four overtimes to Arkansas-Pine Bluff, where the Braves gave up a 30-14 fourth quarter lead, had many thinking the program was headed in the wrong direction under McNair. UAPB won only one game last year and just one this year.

The graduations and injuries have resulted in a lot of young players seeing time on the field.

“This year has not been a normal year injury-wise,” said McNair. “We’ve probably lost eight starters combined on both sides of the ball. I think it was something where we’ve been tested to see if we could overcome all the obstacles, win the East and get back to the SWAC Championship Game.

“The younger guys have grown up now,” he said. “Early in the year we were getting bashed and beat up by deep balls in the secondary. All those guys back there were young. None had played before. That’s the thing people didn’t understand.

“We don’t make excuses. The next man up is what we’ve been pushing the whole year. We’re not where we want to be but we can pretty much battle with what we have. The biggest thing is our offensive line is intact. Those are the guys that make things work up front. So, they have to be ready to play.”

Alcorn State is the second best rushing team in the league averaging 217 yards per game. Junior De’Lance Turner has run for 614 yards and four TDs to lead the ground attack.
The injury bug has also hit the all-important quarterback position. Returning starter Lenorris Footman, who led the team in last year’s title game win, has been in and out of the line-up and only appeared in six games. Redshirt freshman Noah Johnson has run for 440 yards and 10 TDs and passed for 1,100 yards and 11 TDs in relief.

“He’s come in and made plays for us,” McNair said of Johnson who threw seven touchdown passes in a 61-7 pasting of Mississippi Valley State three weeks ago and led the Braves to a season-ending win over Jackson State. McNair said Footman is day-to-day and will start Saturday if he’s healthy.

“It’s going to be a battle,” said McNair of Saturday’s rematch. “We’ve gotten better since that last game. We feel we can play with them now. I think it will be a better ballgame that what was seen the first time.”

ROOTS OF THE RIVALRY
In regards to first times, Grambling State and Alcorn State met for the first time in 1942. It may be hard to believe, but 1942 was the second year of legendary head coach Eddie Robinson’s 55-year sojourn at Grambling, and the last year before he and the conference went on a three-year hiatus to accommodate World War II.

Play resumed in 1945 and that’s when Robinson started his march in earnest toward a record 408 wins. Alcorn State was one of his main victims. Their meetings usually came early in the schedule, in the first two or three weeks, and set the tone for the season.

Robinson’s Tigers won 15 of the first 17 battles against the Braves. Throw out those early wins and the 45-20-1 series edge that Grambling brings into Saturday’s championship tilt doesn’t look so lopsided.

Things started to change around the time Marino Casem took the reigns of the Alcorn program in 1964.  Casem, affectionately known as “The Godfather,” won six of his first nine games against Robinson’s G-Men, signaling the first semblance of a rivalry. Casem was 9-13 vs. the Tigers during his stay at Alcorn but won seven SWAC titles and was declared the black college national champion four times (1968, ’69, ’74 and ’84) during that span.

During that same 22-year period, Robinson’s troops took home 14 SWAC crowns and seven national crowns. The rivalry had indeed begun.

Thanks to the marketing genius of Grambling SID Collie Nicholson, who engineered game dates for the G-Men in Yankee Stadium, Hawaii and Japan, Grambling and Alcorn took their show on the road. They delighted sellout predominantly black crowds in the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1969 and in Chicago’s Soldiers Field in 1971 and 1973. In 1975 the adversaries met in New Orleans at the Super Dome in the first collegiate game played there. Beginning in the early 1980s, the combatants battled 12 out of 14 years in Shreveport (La.) and threw in another trip to Los Angeles in 1989.

In the early ‘90s, legendary late Alcorn State quarterback Steve McNair was the great equalizer. He led the Braves to heroic last-minute wins vs. Grambling in 1991 (27-22 in Shreveport), 1992 (35-33 in Shreveport) and 1993 (25-24 in Lorman).

It took a Herculean effort by Robinson’s G-Men to finally knock off the man who came to be known as “Air” McNair, who finished third in voting for the Heisman Trophy in 1994. McNair amassed 633 total yards, finishing 27of 52 for 534 passing yards and five touchdowns and running for 99 yards and one TD in the ’94 game. Grambling quarterback Kendrick Nord hit on 17 of 33 passes for 485 yards and seven TDs in the record-setting game won by ,Grambling 62-56. But the win only came after McNair dramatically drove the Braves from their own 37 to the Tiger 11-yard line in the final 90 seconds. His pass into the end zone with 4 seconds left tantalizingly bounced off several hands before falling to the ground.

Alcorn State has only won five of 18 games vs. Grambling since 1997. Even while winning the last two SWAC titles under departed coach Jay Hopson, the Braves have lost three of four games to Broderick Fobbs’ G-Men.

The SWAC is full of big-time rivalries and each state in its footprint has special intra-state match ups. Texas has Texas Southern/Prairie View in September’s Labor Day Classic. Alabama has Alabama A&M/Alabama State, Birmingham’s Magic City Classic at historic Legion Field in early October. Mississippi features the Jackson State/Alcorn State game to close out the regular season in November. Louisiana has the famous Bayou Classic pitting Southern and Grambling on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.

Of the SWAC’s cross-state rivalries, Alcorn State/Grambling is among the best. At last year’s homecoming at Alcorn State the matchup drew a wild packed house of 30,149 that watched Grambling knock off the Braves in a 35-34 overtime thriller. A crowd of 40,352 watched last year’s rematch in Houston – the third largest crowd in the 17-year history of the SWAC Championship Game – a 49-21 Alcorn win.  Just under 15,000 showed up this year to Robinson Stadium as the G-Men got a tinge of revenge in a 43-18 win.

Expect more of the same as the teams get it on for the 67th time Saturday in Houston.

 

 
 
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