Two teams, champions of the Mid-Eastern and Southwestern Athletic Conferences, and mirror images of each other, faced off in the inaugural Celebration Bowl.
After an exciting finish which saw Alcorn State drive all the way down to the Aggie's red zone, but failing to tie the game on a fourth and goal pass play, North Carolina A&T claimed the 2015 FCS national HBCU football championship with a 41-34 win over Alcorn State before a crowd of 35,528 at the Georgia Dome.
In a matchup featuring two prolific rushing offenses, A&T put their foot on the gas early and never let up. Two of the nation’s top FCS backs figured to be the stars on this national stage but only one shined. While SWAC Championship Game MVP Darryan Ragsdale was held to a less than pedestrian 39 yards, the MEAC’s Offensive Player of the Year, running back Tarik Cohen, ripped the Braves.
Cohen – a junior who's already the all-time leading rusher in NC A&T history – added to his legend that day, rushing for 166 of his 295 yards in the first quarter. The Aggies gouged Alcorn St. for 230 of their 366 yards on the ground before halftime.
“I think is the best game I ever played because it’s the biggest game I ever played in,” said Cohen. “My performance in a big game would overlook any other performance in an average game”.
Cohen scored on two of his first five touches on runs of 74 and 83 yards that set the tone for the day. He put the game on ice busting through the Alcorn defense on a 73 yard run that turned him into a social media icon late in the fourth quarter.
“He earned every yard that he got and I’ve got nothing but respect for him,” said Alcorn St. defensive back Warren Gatewood. “We haven’t seen too many backs like him”.
A&T introduced Alcorn to MEAC defense by stifling them on their opening drive and then the fireworks started.
The Aggies' Sophomore wide receiver, Khris Gardin, electrified the Georgia Dome with a 74 yard punt return for a touchdown, but the Braves' Anthony Williams returned the favor moments later with an 84-yard punt return to pull Alcorn State within 7-6. Then it was the Tarik Cohen show, who scored on runs of 74 and 83 yards, jump starting the Aggies' explosive offense.
The Braves never seemed comfortable against NC A&T’s defense. In addition to putting the clamps on Ragsdale, the Aggies held the SWAC’s top rushing offense to 104 yards. Alcorn’s quarterback, Lenorris Footman, finished with 202 yards of total offense and two touchdown passes while trying to rally his troops.
“We try to keep everything in a box,” said A&T Coach Rod Broadway. “When our two inside guys are playing well it’s tough to run the football on us”.
Footman led them on a furious second half rally. Alcorn State tied the game at 34 on a fake field goal pass from Brandon Vessell to Brandon Campbell with 5:10 remaining in the fourth quarter. That set the stage for Cohen’s third touchdown run of more than 70 yards which proved to be the difference in the game. The Braves last drive moved them deep into Aggie territory but an incompletion on fourth down at the NCA&T nine yard line sealed their fate.
The Celebration Bowl may have changed the perception of Black College Football after a national TV audience watched a brilliant individual performance and a compelling game that went to the very end. As the only bowl game for FCS schools, HBCU programs now have a carat that their counterparts can’t offer.