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.”