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Courtesy: SWAC.org

Rivals Clash with Championship Bid on the Line

Courtesy: Roscoe Nance
Release: 11/16/2012
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Blood rivals Jackson State and Alcorn State renew their annual hostilities Saturday in old but unfamiliar venue with a lot more than bragging rights at stake.

Jackson State (6-4, 6-2) must win to clinch the SWAC East Division title and a spot in the conference championship game opposite Arkansas-Pine Bluff, the West Division champ. Alcorn doesn’t have as much riding on the outcome. For the Braves (4-6, 4-4 SWAC), a victory would mean a winning conference record, a feat they haven’t accomplished since 2007.

The game is at Alcorn – affectionately and derisively known as The Reservation depending one’s rooting interests –and is billed as the Soul Bowl after being played at Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium, Jackson State’s home field, the past 18 years under the banner of the Capital Classic.

But regardless of where the game is played or the name it goes under, the competition is sure to be intense.

“It’s always going to be an intense game,’’ says SWAC Hall of Fame receiver Willie Richardson, who played at Jackson State from 1959-62 and is an analyst for the Tigers’ radio broadcast. “You always got guys who played together in high school and one went to Jackson State and one to Alcorn. It’s always going to be an intense rivalry because of that. Whenever we played, it was like a championship game.’’

Even though Alcorn has been down in recent years – the Braves came into the season having only won 14 games since 2007 and not having had a winning record since 2006 – the rivalry with Jackson State hasn’t waned. The series is tied 5-5 over the past 10 games.

“It’s like no other rivalry,’’ says SWAC Hall of Fame coach Marino H. Casem, who was coach at Alcorn for 22 seasons and had some epic battles with Jackson State. “That week you really don’t have to do much coaching. The motivation is already there. I tell anybody who is an Alcornite, if the don’t get fired up when that Jackson State band with the J-Settes and playing Get Ready, they must be dead. Take me home.’’

Casem still has bad memories of the 1974 game with Jackson State on The Reservation. The Braves won the SWAC championship that season with a 9-2 record, but Jackson State beat them19-13 when they failed to score after having first-and-goal at the four. Legend has it that Robert Brazile made all four tackles for Jackson State with the game-saving stop coming when he dropped Alcorn running back Augusta Lee at the one on the final play.

“No way in the world could you tell me that I’m first-and-goal at the four that even the Chicago Bears could stop,’’ Casem says.

Casem got his revenge five years later. The game was played at Memorial Stadium in a steady downpour that prevented both bands from performing at halftime. The rain didn’t deter the Braves, however. Ignoring the elements, they did down-ups in the mud during pregame warm-ups before disposing of Jackson State 9-7 on three field goals by Wilfredo “Sugar Foot’’ Rosales.  Casem did a belly flop in the mud at the 50-yard line after the game.

Former Alabama State coach Houston Markham, a SWAC Hall of Famer, has been on both sides of the rivalry as an offensive lineman at Alcorn in from 1961-64 and later as an assistant coach offensive coordinator at Jackson State.

“When I played, we thought they thought they were better than us they were in the capital city and were out there in the country,’’ Markham says. “That agitated us and made us really want to whip them. As I look back, they usually were favored. They had the better personnel. We hated (them). Our season was built around that game.’’

And Markham’s view from the Jackson State side of the rivalry.

“It was just like I thought I thought they felt when I was on the other side,’’ he says.  “We were supposed to beat them. Being a coach, you didn’t feel like the fans felt. They felt because we were in the capital city we were supposed. I wanted to beat them, but I didn’t hate them like the folk who went to Jackson State.’’

Markham says the sense of superiority  that Alcornite perceive among Jacksonians  “will always be there forever,’’ and it seems to have spread to team members as well.

After Jackson State defeated Alabama A&M last weekend and put the Tigers in position to win the division title with a victory against Alcorn, defensive end Joseph LeBeau said, “I don’t want to go into a little country town. We’ll get it done.”

Richardson says LeBeau’s words could come back to haunt the Tigers.

“You have to be careful what you say,’’ Richardson says. “They have good players. They don’t have as many as we do, but for one game. … We got to put them away early. If you let them hang around, anything can happen.

Statistics favor Jackson State in this year’s game. The Tigers, who have two of the last three games in the series, are in the top three in the conference in scoring, total offense, total defense, rushing offense, rushing defense and pass offense. Alcorn on the other hand is in the bottom four in every major statistical category except pass defense, where they are No. 3, allowing 162.3 yards a game.

Richardson, however, says stats are meaningless in a game of this nature.

“It’s going to be a better game than people anticipate,’’ he says. “Jackson State is the better team, but Alcorn has shown can win close game. We have to play our A game to win. We can’t throw our hats on the field and win.’’

Three of Alcorn’s victories have been by three points or less. Their fourth win was by 10 points against Texas Southern.

In most instances, the prospect of a five-win season would have fans up in arms and clamoring for a coaching change. That’s not how it is with the Braves, however, given their circumstances. Coach Jay Hopson, wasn’t hired until late May. He didn’t assemble his coaching staff until well into the summer, and when preseason practice began he had no real idea about his personnel, and they didn’t have a feel for him.

Still, the Braves won their opening gun, stunning defending SWAC champion and 2011 preseason conference favorite Grambling State 21-20.

“Coach has done a good job getting that team together,’’ Jackson State coach Rick Comegy says.

A victory against Jackson State and a winning conference record would be a monumental achievement, all things considered.

“That’s something we strive for,’’ Hopson says. “It’s something we have in the back of our minds. It’s something we want to achieve.’’

Hopson may be a newcomer to the Jackson State-Alcorn rivalry, but he is no stranger to it having grown up in Vicksburg, Miss., which is about 35 miles from both schools.

“I know how intense it is,’’ he says. “I’m from around here. I understand it. We know we have our hands full. We know we have to get ready to play. We’re going to have to execute offensively and defensively. I sound like a worn out record but that’s the reality of it.’’

The biggest concern for Alcorn’s defense is dealing with Rico Richardson, Jackson State’s big-play wide receiver. Richardson averages 19.8 yards a reception, No. 3 in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) among receivers with at least 50 catches.

“Rico has done nothing but put up big numbers this year,’’ Hopson says. “He’s a very talented young man. He gets up and gets the ball and runs real well.’’

However, quarterback Clayton Moore is the man who makes Jackson State’s offense go. Moore, a transfer from Akron, became the starter after Jackson State lost its first two games while only scoring two touchdowns in the process. Moore has thrown for 1,619 yards with 1,419 yards and all nine of his touchdown passes coming in his eight starts.

“When Jackson got him involved, you saw Jackson’s offense go to another level,’’ Hopson says.

Jackson State averaged 32.8 points in the eight games that Moore started after scoring a total of 21 in its first two games.

“Clayton Moore came in and gave us a mental lift because he’s such a competitor,’’ Comegy says. “He’s the kind of guy who competes real hard. He wants to win. He has a winning attitude. He’s not the best quarterback I’ve ever had, but he’s a highly competitive kid. When you have a highly competitive kid touching the ball 60-65 times a game, something is going to happen. I like him at quarterback. Clayton gives us that energy that we need.’’