A pair of conference champions from the HBCU ranks kicked off the bowl season on Saturday with a thrilling showcase in the inaugural Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl, as North Carolina A&T defeated Alcorn State 41-34 to claim the title on Saturday at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. Here's a breakdown of the action:
What the win means for North Carolina A&T: It completes an impressive rise for this program over the past five seasons since coach Rod Broadway took the helm. In the season prior to Broadway’s arrival, the Aggies were 1-10, were stuck in a streak of seven straight losing seasons and had scholarship and practice limitations because of low NCAA Academic Progress Rate scores. This win gives the Aggies (10-2) a total of 33 victories over the past four years and marks North Carolina A&T’s first 10-win season since 2003. In addition to finishing atop the MEAC -- where they earned a berth to this game via a three-way tiebreaker -- winning the Celebration Bowl caps off an impressive season for the Aggies, giving them the HBCU national title, as well.
What the loss means for Alcorn State: It’s a disappointing end to an otherwise great season for the Braves (9-4), who won the SWAC championship on Dec. 5. It stops the Braves just short of having back-to-back 10-win seasons, but they still have had marked success under coach Jay Hopson. The Braves were 2-8 in 2012, the season before Hopson arrived, and are 32-17 in the four seasons since, including three consecutive nine-win seasons and back-to-back SWAC titles. It would have been nice for the Braves to cap the season off with a win in the Celebration Bowl, but give them credit for coming back to stay in the game after falling behind by 18 points in the second quarter.
How the game was won: North Carolina A&T jumped out to a 24-6 lead with 11:31 remaining in the second quarter, using several big plays (an early 74-yard punt return by Khris Gardin for a score and touchdown runs of 74 and 83 yards by running back Tarik Cohen) to blow the game open. Alcorn State charged back to tie the game at 27 early in the fourth. From then on, it was a back-and-forth battle until Cohen broke free for a 73-yard touchdown run with 4:17 left to give the Aggies a seven-point lead. Alcorn State had one final chance to tie or take the lead in the game's final minute, driving to the A&T 9-yard line, but the Aggies came up with the final stop to secure the win.
Player of the game: Cohen. The home-state product from Bunn, North Carolina, was dominant on Saturday, rushing for 295 yards and three touchdowns on only 22 carries -- for a whopping 13.4 yards per carry. He has been a dynamic back all season, ranking eighth in the FCS in rushing yards per game coming into Saturday's contest and is just the third MEAC player with consecutive 1,200-yard rushing seasons over the past 20 seasons. If Cohen’s name sounds familiar, it should: He became a social media superstar this offseason when videos of him catching footballs while doing backflips went viral. In addition to acrobatic catches, Cohen is quite the running back.
Stats of the game: Both teams were known for their defenses -- North Carolina A&T ranked second and Alcorn State third in the FCS in total defense coming into Saturday’s game -- but it was offense and big plays that ruled the day. North Carolina A&T finished with 543 offensive yards, and Alcorn State’s 34 points were the most against A&T’s fifth-ranked FCS scoring defense this season.