A record crowd of 49,670 was on hand for the contest – the first to be decided in overtime — as the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) continued its dominance over the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) with its sixth win in the seven-year history of the Celebration Bowl.
The Eagles took a 10-0 lead in the first seven minutes of the contest before Jackson fought back to go ahead 14-10 early in the second period in the contest that featured six lead changes, three in each half. Jackson State led 21-17 at the half. NC Central owned a 26-21 lead after three periods and there were two lead changes and one tie in the final stanza before the game was decided in overtime.
NCCU took a 34-27 lead on Davius Richard’s one-yard run and a successful two-point conversion pass with 4:31 left in the fourth period, but Sanders directed a 15-play, 81-yard scoring drive in the final four minutes of regulation, connecting with Travis Hunter on a 19-yard scoring pass with no time left on the fourth-period clock to get the Tigers to within 34-33. Alejandro Mata’s extra point deadlocked the contest at 34-all, forcing the extra period in a contest that featured six lead changes.
Jackson State won the toss in overtime and elected to go on defense from the 25-yard line. It took the underdog Eagles just four plays to get into the end zone, with Richard getting the score from one yard away. Adrian Olivio added the PAT to put Coach Trei Oliver’s team ahead 41-34 the game.
Jackson State got its turn, also from the 25-yard line, and in five plays reached the one-yard line on a second-down, two-yard run by Sy’veon Wilkerson. However, two straight passes by Sanders were off the mark, giving NC Central the win, their first Celebration Bowl triumph in two appearances. The Eagles lost 10-9 to Grambling in 2016, the only win for the SWAC in the rivalry which began in 2016.
Saturday’s loss was the second in as many years for Jackson State head coach Deion Sanders suffered a defeat in the postseason Classic between the two conferences. Sanders, after three seasons as Tiger head coach, is headed to a similar position at Colorado. Jackson State fell to South Carolina State 31-10 in 2021.
The underdog Eagles, who finished the season 10-2 and won the MEAC with a 4-1 worksheet, rolled up 482 yards of total offense in the contest, with 276 coming on the ground. Running back Latrell Collier led the Eagle ground attack with 98 yards and a touchdown on 17 attempts and also had five catches for 40 yards.
Richard was close behind in the rushing department with 97 yards and two scores on 22 tries. The NCCU signal caller also completed 15 of 20 passes for 175 yards and a score in the victory. The junior of Belle Glade, FL had scoring runs of four and one yard and completed a 12-yard scoring pass to Quention McCall. Collier added a seven-yard scoring run and Adrian Olivo field goals of 32 and 21 yards in the win.
E.J. Hicks had four catches for 84 yards and set up the Eagles’ first touchdown with a 31-yard option pass to Richard, and added a successful two-point conversion completion to Richard in the final period, which staked his team to a 34-27 lead with 4:31 left in regulation.
The Eagle defense was paced by MEAC Defensive Player of the Year, junior linebacker Khalil Baker with 10 tackles, five solos, and freshman cornerback Jason Chambers who had nine stops, including five unassisted.
Richard was named the game’s Offensive MVP and Baker the Defensive MVP in the contest.
Jackson State quarterback Sanders, despite being on the losing end of consecutive Celebration Bowls, had an impressive outing for the Tigers. The Canton, TX sophomore completed 30 of 40 attempts for 349 yards and four scores. He found 10 Jackson State teammates for completions, including Kevin Coleman, Jr., who gathered eight passes for 137 yards and a score. Shane Hooks had seven catches for 70 yards and Hunter five for 47 and two touchdowns. The Tigers were limited to just 68 net yards rushing with Wilkerson leading the way with 52 yards on 15 attempts.
Graduate linebacker Aubrey Miller Jr. led the Tiger defense with 11 tackles, five unassisted, along with a forced fumble, while redshirt freshman Jeremiah Williams added 10 stops, including five solos and a sack.