North Carolina A&T tops Alcorn State in Season’s First Bowl

ATLANTA —  Tarik Cohen said he looked tired because he hadn’t eaten enough, but surely it had more to do with all the running when he rushed for 295 yards and touchdowns of 74, 83 and 73 yards as North Carolina A&T beat Alcorn State 41-34 in the Celebration Bowl on Saturday.

Cohen, the game’s MVP, wasn’t the only one to turn in big plays in the Georgia Dome, but he was the last and most frequent.

The inaugural Celebration Bowl matched champions of the two historically black Division-I conferences, and had four first-quarter scoring plays cover a combined 315 yards.

Cohen’s 73-yard yarder with 4:17 left in the game was the winner, although only when an Alcorn State (9-4) pass sailed incomplete on fourth-and-goal from the 9-yard line with nine seconds left was North Carolina A&T (10-2) safe.

By choosing to forsake the FCS playoffs and instead send their champions to the new Celebration Bowl, the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference — which sent North Carolina A&T — and Southwestern Athletic Conference landed on a rare national television stage.

Cohen, a 5-foot-6, 173-pound junior running back, who scored on his 83-yarder with 3:15 left in the first quarter to give the Aggies a 21-6 lead, appreciated the opportunity.

“For breakfast, I drank like half a cup of orange juice. I wasn’t hungry for food. I was hungry for this national championship,” he said. “This is a good opportunity for all black colleges … because 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.”

Khris Gardin gave A&T a quick lead on a 74-yard punt return just 1:24 into the game, and Anthony Williams returned the favor moments later with an 84-yard punt return to pull Alcorn State within 7-6.

Cohen popped scoring runs of 74 and 83 yards on the Aggies’ next two possessions, and A&T pushed its lead to 24-6 when Cody Jones was good on a 45-yard field goal with 11:31 left in the first half.

“He had 295 yards, and he earned every one of them,” Alcorn safety Warren Gatewood said after Cohen carried 22 times. “I have nothing but respect. We haven’t seen a back like that. He’s small in stature, but takes a pounding.”

Alcorn State rallied with the help of fine field position and trick plays. The Braves scored touchdowns on four consecutive possessions.

Quarterback Lenorris Footman caught a 9-yard touchdown from wide receiver Tollette George in the third quarter, and wide receiver Brandon Vessell threw a 3-yard scoring strike to tight end Brandon Campbell on a fake field-goal attempt with 5:10 to go.

That tied the game at 34-all.

Two plays later, Cohen took off up the middle, running away from multiple defenders to put the Braves ahead for good.

Cohen finished the season with 1,543 yards. He has 4,031 in three seasons.

“Tarik is special and I guess the nation got a chance to see him perform today. We’ve been seeing him for three years,” A&T coach Ray Broadway said. “He’s capable of doing it any time he touches the ball … that kid’s incredible.”

Alcorn State did not go quietly, but after reaching first-and-goal at the A&T 9-yard line, Footman threw four straight incompletions.

A&T walloped Alcorn statistically with a 543-260 advantage in total yards.

The Braves, though, set up relatively short fields over the final two-plus quarters with an interception and 24-yard return to the A&T 10 by safety Anthony Williams, a 47-yard kickoff return by Marquis Warford, a blocked field goal by Gatewood and a personal foul penalty against A&T.

Those plays helped keep the Braves around even though A&T held Alcorn running back Darryan Ragsdale to 39 yards on 15 carries. He came in with 1,144 yards.

Decisions by the MEAC and SWAC to skip the playoffs were not universally welcomed, but Broadway loves an HBCU national championship.

“I was for it all along … It’s a beautiful experience,” he said. “To me … there’s so much more value in this because we’re not financed to win national (FCS) championships, but we are financed to win this championship. I’m proud to be part of this bowl.”

SC On The Road: What the Celebration Bowl means to HBCUs

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This year’s bowl season will kick off a little differently.

Forget teams with six-win seasons or squads teetering along with an interim head coach. The 2015 college football postseason begins with two conference champions squaring off: Alcorn State and North Carolina A&T.

The two FCS programs — both known as historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) — will make history when they meet in the inaugural Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl on Saturday at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta (noon ET, ABC).

“That’s really a cool deal,” Alcorn State coach Jay Hopson said.

The game pits the champions from the MEAC (Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference) and the SWAC (Southwestern Athletic Conference) in what North Carolina A&T coach Rod Broadway calls the “black college national championship” since both conferences are comprised of HBCUs.

“I’m happy for our guys to have an opportunity to experience a bowl game,” Broadway said. “I’ve been there and done it but for our kids to have the opportunity to experience something like that, it’s a beautiful thing, especially with it being the first.”

Alcorn State (9-3, 7-2 SWAC) earned its berth by defeating Grambling State in the SWAC championship game on Dec. 5; North Carolina A&T (9-2, 7-1) punched its ticket by winning a three-way tiebreaker with Bethune-Cookman and North Carolina Central atop the MEAC.

Both programs have been on the rise under their respective coaches. Each team has won 32 games over the past four years. In the four-year stretch before 2012, Alcorn State and North Carolina A&T won a combined 25 games. Alcorn State went 14-38 in the five seasons before Hopson’s hiring in 2012. North Carolina A&T hadn’t finished with a winning record in seven years before Broadway’s 2011 arrival.

Broadway not only had to pull the Aggies from the on-field abyss (they were 1-10 in 2010), the program was a mess academically. Because of subpar NCAA Academic Progress Rate (APR) scores, the Aggies were required to function with fewer scholarships and less practice time for a stretch. Broadway said they couldn’t hold spring football practice his first two seasons on campus because of the APR penalties. He and his staff emphasized improvement in the classroom and the program went from a single-year APR as low as 848 in 2008-09 to 958 in 2013-14.

Coaches had weekly academic meetings with their players to help them stay on top of classwork. The program is now free of any APR-imposed restrictions.

“It’s quite simple: If you don’t go to class, you can’t play, at least not here,” Broadway said. “Staying on top of the guys and having an academic meeting once a week with the kids, you knew what they had to do and knew what tests they had…We had to teach them responsibility, time management and how to be accountable.”

Hopson grew up in Vicksburg, Mississippi, roughly an hour north of Alcorn State’s campus, so taking over the Braves was a homecoming of sorts. The program hadn’t won a SWAC championship since 1993 — when the late Steve McNair was starring at quarterback for the Braves — and was 2-8 the season before Hopson arrived.

The Braves won the SWAC title in 2014 and clinched their second consecutive league title earlier this month, the first time they’ve won consecutive league titles since 1968-70. It wasn’t without its ups and downs, however.

“We lost two [SWAC] games by seven total points, so that’s always tough, but I’m proud of this team because we had some injuries,” Hopson said. “We lost LaDarrien Davis, [Jaborian] Tip McKenzie and Jarvis Turner — three starting receivers — we lost our starting quarterback, John Gibbs, we lost our starting safety, Daniel Franklin. This is a team that had some adversity. We had injuries, lost five or six starters, and battled back. I think we’re a team — in basketball terms — we’re getting stronger toward tournament time. I’m seeing a football team that really has gotten stronger as the season wore on.”

Saturday’s game will be a third attempt at MEAC-SWAC bowl. The Pelican Bowl paired the league’s champions in 1972, 1974 and 1975. The Heritage Bowl launched in 1991 and ran through the 1999 season, with the last seven games being held at Saturday’s game site, the Georgia Dome. The Celebration Bowl is the first attempt at reviving a MEAC-SWAC postseason game since 1999, but a welcome one for the two leagues, who don’t have automatic bids to the FCS playoffs (the MEAC relinquished its bid to participate in this game; the SWAC no longer participates in the FCS playoffs).

“The first time out, I’m sure they’re going to have some wrinkles and some things [that need to be] ironed out down the road but as you grow, you learn,” Broadway said. “I think it’s going to be a beautiful thing for black college football.”

Both teams would love to emerge victorious on Saturday, but both coaches realize the significance of the game in the bigger picture. It’s a spotlight on HBCU football. The SWAC has been playing football since 1921, the MEAC since 1971. The leagues meet for the MEAC/SWAC challenge, which has existed since 2005. And yes, the bands will be an attraction: A&T’s Blue & Gold Marching Machine and Alcorn State’s Sounds of Dyn-O-mite.

“I think the opportunity to be on national TV, ABC, to showcase our university…it’s stuff that you can’t buy,” Hopson said. “We have such a wonderful conference and a wonderful product. We’re the No. 1 attended conference in FCS football. That’s one thing that the SWAC has that’s truly amazing. Young men get to play in front of 30,000…we had 40,000 at the SWAC championship. Hopefully we’ll have a nice crowd there, a great bowl environment and be able to showcase the SWAC and MEAC conferences.”

Hopson and Broadway have noted that appearing in the game also has recruiting advantages in addition to shining a light on their institutions.

“Hopefully it helps us down the road as far as recruiting student-athletes, or just regular students here,” Broadway said. “For three hours, we’ll be the face of the university on a national scale.”

Both coaches spent the majority of their careers at the FBS level. Broadway made stops at East Carolina, Duke, Florida and North Carolina before moving to FCS football. Hopson was at Tulane, LSU, Florida, Marshall, Ole Miss, Southern Miss, Michigan and Memphis. The two even once shared time on the same staff in 1995 at Florida. They know what bowl games are all about.

For most of their players it’s a new experience. And while the larger significance behind the game is important, the coaches are ensuring their teams are still focused on the nuts and bolts.

“We’re trying to figure out a way to stop third-and-2,” Broadway joked.