By: J. Blackwell and Angela Jones
The North Carolina A&T Aggies (10-2) held on for a 41-34 win against the Alcorn State Braves (9-4) in the inaugural Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl at the Georgia Dome. There were over 35,000 fans in attendance to kick off the college bowl season on ABC.
Coming into this matchup both teams were known primarily for their defense with North Carolina A&T ranked second and Alcorn State third in total defense in the FCS, but it turned out to be big plays on offense that set the tone of the game.
The Braves trailed for much of the game with the Aggies leading by as much as 18 in the second quarter. The second half was a completely different story with an all-out back-and-forth offensive battle.
Tarik Cohen, the Celebration Bowl Offensive MVP, provided the 73-yard tie-breaking touchdown run with 4:17 left to play. Cohen feasted on the Alcorn state defense finishing with a school-record 295 rushing yards and three touchdowns on just 22 carries. Cohen averaged a stellar 13.4 yards per carry.
This is not the first time that Cohen has shown the world his athleticism. Over the summer, he became a viral sensation, appearing on ESPN SportsCenter showcasing variations of the backflip while catching one, sometimes two footballs. His superb performance at the Georgia Dome showed that his talents stretch far beyond backflips.
“We’ve said all along that Tarik is special,” North Carolina A&T Coach Rod Broadway said while speaking of the Celebration Bowl Offensive MVP. “I guess the nation got a chance to see what we’ve known he is capable of doing for three years now. He had a big game for us, and we needed it.”
The Braves’ continued to fight back late in the fourth quarter. Alcorn State quarterback Lenorris Footman marched the Braves’ down field and into the red zone with just nine seconds on the clock. On fourth-and-goal Footman’s pass sailed incomplete from the Aggies nine yard line, sealing the Braves’ fate.
“I thought we were going to win with that last drive,” Braves Coach Jay Hopson said. “This has been a football team you can never count out. It doesn’t matter if we’re down 40-to-nothing, we seem to find a way with three minutes to go in the game to give ourselves a chance to win.”
Coach Broadway has instilled in his team that if something good happens, keep playing. If something bad happens, keep playing. That is exactly what the Aggies did when Alcorn State began fighting back in the second half.
“What an incredible energy and time with our constituents. Our alumni are outstanding people,” NC A&T Chancellor Harold Martin Sr. said as he wore the HBCU National Championship hat proudly. “They have supported Coach Broadway, his staff, and our football team and they have responded in remarkable ways. We are as pleased as we could possibly be.”
The MEAC forfeited its automatic berth into the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs for the rare chance to showcase the talents of historically black college and university (HBCU) student athletes on a national platform.
ESPN SportsCenter on the Road originated live from the Georgia Dome with Alcorn State Sounds of Dyn-O-Mite and the North Carolina A&T Blue and Gold Marching Machine bands on hand to entertain the crowd.
This is the kind of exposure that students athletes attending HBCU’s need to take the programs to the next level.
“This is a good opportunity for all black colleges,” Cohen said of the opportunity to play in the Celebration Bowl on national television. “If you look in the Hall of Fame, some of the best players come (from HBCU programs). I think it’s good for recruiting purposes.
Football fans can now look forward to seeing the MEAC and SWAC Champions continue to battle it out in the coming years. The MEAC and SWAC leagues currently have a six-year agreement to play in the Celebration Bowl. Each conference received a $1 million payout.
“Everyone won today. It was a heck of a product from start to finish,” MEAC Commissioner Dennis Thomas said.
The first-ever Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl was truly entertaining. There was an immense amount of HBCU pride shown by both teams from the opening snap to the last whistle blown. There was no better way to kick off the football bowl season.