Surprising Alcorn State, ‘Air Canada’ off to impressive start

You could be forgiven for not expecting Alcorn State’s quick liftoff this season.

This was a program that once seemed lost after a sequence of utter turmoil before Earnest Collins took over.

Former Alcorn athletics director Darren Hamilton first fired head coach Ernest T. Jones and his entire staff in December 2008 then, days later, reinstated Jones’ assistants. Lawsuits, inevitably, ensued. Collins, one of the reinstated, ultimately signed a one-year contact as head coach in March 2009.

That’s a far cry from the stability and success of Alcorn legend Marino Casem, who coached there for 22 years from 1964-86 — going 139-70-8 over all and 86-48-7 in the SWAC.

Collins kept at it. And here the Braves sit at the top of of the Southwestern Athletic Conference’s Eastern Division. A win this week against Texas Southern would move Alcorn to 4-1 overall and 3-0 in league action. Kickoff at Alcorn is set for 2 p.m. Saturday.

Heck, Collins finds himself marvelling at times, too. During the SWAC’s weekly teleconference, he called true freshman quarterback Brandon Bridge’s 78-yard touchdown run last week against Mississippi State a wonder to behold.

That was the longest rushing play MSU has allowed this season, and trimmed the Bulldogs’ lead to 14-7 early in the second quarter.

“To be honest with you, I thought they were going to catch him,” Collins said. “He’s kind of like a horse. He kicked into another gear. He started to gallop. I think he surprised myself along with everyone else in the stadium.”

Given the nickname “Air Canada” by some fans — the 6-foot-5, 195-pounder is from the Toronto suburb of Mississauga, Ontario — Bridge went 13-of-24 for a touchdown and 193 passing yards, and ran for 77 net yards, despite sitting out the fourth quarter against Mississippi State.

He’d replaced starting quarterback Terrence Barnes on Sept. 18 in an eventual 27-9 win at Mississippi Valley State, igniting the Braves with 250 yards of total offense — 150 yards more over just three quarters than the senior community college transfer Barnes had managed in Alcorn’s first two games.

Bridge and this Alcorn team seemed to come of age in a subsequent 41-21 win on Sept. 25 over Alabama State, topping a group that had just shocked the SWAC by knocking off defending champion Prairie View. A still-maturing Bridge threw two picks, but ultimately went 13-of-24 for 225 yards and a touchdown — and ripped off a scintillating a 57-yard touchdown run. The Braves hadn’t bested Alabama State since 2002.

“With Brandon, he’s still a freshman. He’s learning to get into good plays and out of bad plays,” Collins told The Natchez (Miss.) Democrat. “We have to continue to play to his strengths and keep it simple, and he’ll get better each game.”

Of course, Alcorn was atop the East last October, too, before falling apart. The difference this year is likely Bridge, and a resolve-testing pair of favored opponents.

Though it’s fair to question the level of competition in season-opening wins over lower-division Langston and the winless Valley, the same argument can’t be made with more recent foes — and the Braves acquitted themselves well.

Keep an eye on Alcorn. This isn’t the same group that was outscored 100-0 by FBS members Southern Mississippi and Central Michigan to begin last year.

Doubters should go no further than Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen, who gave Alcorn a notable measure of praise, despite the Braves’ eventual 49-16 loss:

“I’ll be shocked if that team doesn’t win their conference.”

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