Aggies win a nail-biter 41-34, in the inaugural Celebration Bowl

Students, fans, and alumni alike, came out for the inaugural Celebration Bowl here in Atlanta. The Celebration Bowl put the winner of the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) against the winner of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC). This had The braves of Alcorn St. (SWAC) facing the Aggies of North Carolina A&T (MEAC). You might remember that name Alcorn St. from the beginning of the season when they faced Georgia Tech in a game the Braves would rather forget (they lost 69-6).

Khris Gardin of North Carolina A&T is the first, first-team All-American punt returner since Curtis Deloatch in 2001. He came into the game only two yards shy of breaking the NCAA FCS record for punt return yards in a season. This record was broken quickly as Gardin returned an Alcorn punt for 74 yards to give A&T the first points of the game (successful PAT made it 7-0).

Anthony Williams of Alcorn St. responded with a punt return of his own of 84 yards and a touchdown. Their attempt to tie the game failed as the PAT was muffed. But with the way the Aggies had been playing, the Braves were lucky to have those six points.

The end of the 1st Quarter showed an extremely lopsided affair. The Aggies of NC A&T had a total of 195 yards from 12 plays while the Braves notched 31 yards off of 18 plays.

alcorn-celebration-bowl
Alcorn St. scores a touchdown to come within seven points of North Carolina A&T (Hakim Wright).

While playmaker Khris Gardin had produced a mere 4 yards receiving, it was running back Tarik Cohen who stole the show with 5 rushes for a mind-boggling 166 yards and 2 touchdowns.

Alcorn St. was struggling heavily on offense but especially in the passing area. Quarterback Lenorris Footman went 4 of 15 with his passes for 34 yards and an interception.

The Braves were desperate for a spark before going into halftime and thankfully it came when Kylil Carter’s (NC A&T) pass was intercepted by Anthony Williams Jr. and returned 23 yards to NC A&T’s 10 yard line. After this, ASU’s Footman found RB Arron Baker for the touchdown. With the successful PAT, the game was now Alcorn State 13, North Carolina A&T 24.

 

Alcorn State came out energized in the 2nd Half thanks to a trick play where RB Tollette George caught a pitch and threw it back to QB Lenorris Footman who ran it in for the 9 yard touchdown. With that score, it was starting to like a competitive match with Alcorn being down only 7 (20-27). The love was returned the next quarter when Footman found George with an 11 yard touchdown pass to tie the game at 27.

But the offensive powerhouse of the day was still A&T. Once they got the ball they scored in 6 plays going 81 yards in just under 3 minutes.

With the game at 34-27 with just under 8 minutes to play, the Braves started to play with some urgency. Once the Braves got in a 4th and goal situation, they faked the Field Goal and went for it all. The game was on the line and their gamble paid off when Holder Brandon Vessell found Tight End Brandon Campbell for the game-tying touchdown. The Braves put it all on the line and their gamble paid off as they tied the game at 34 with 5 minutes left to play.

The raucous crowd of 35,528 were on their feet. The Alcorn St. side didn’t have much to cheer about in the 1st Half but the 2nd Half was like an entirely different game. With momentum on their side it was time for their defense to step up to the plate.

As the clock winds down to 0:00, the celebrations begin for the North Carolina A&T Aggies (Hakim Wright)
As time expires, the celebrations begin for the North Carolina A&T Aggies (Hakim Wright)

But as they’ve shown all-game, the Aggies running game could not and would not be stopped. Tarik Cohen, on his first carry of the drive, ran 73 yards for a touchdown. It took all of 36 seconds for the NC A&T Aggies to recapture the lead 41-34.

A very rare defensive stance by Alcorn and a shoddy punt by A&T had the Braves start their last drive from around midfield. With less than a minute to go and their first ever bowl win on the line, the Alcorn St. fans were willing their team on when they needed it most.

The scary moment came when Alcorn’s Brandon Vessell’s catch was reviewed in the booth (to see whether his feet were in bounds). After about a minute of reviewing, the call stood as a catch and a first down for the Braves. At A&T’s 26 yard-line with 38 seconds left, Alcorn’s offense was progressing effectively with the passing game.

North Carolina A&T, winners of the inaugural Celebration Bowl (Hakim Wright)

With the Shotgun 4 WR set working for them, the Braves worked their way inside the 10 yard-line. When the Aggies needed it most they came up with 2 solid stops to bring up a dramatic 4th and goal situation. With 13 seconds left, this was for the game. But when Footman looked for Tollette George in the corner end-zone the pass went just over his hands for an incompletion. Although it could’ve been argued he was hit right as the ball arrived, it stood incomplete and North Carolina A&T kneeled in the victory formation to seal the win.

Here is North Carolina A&T’s Head Coach Rod Broadway on the Bowl Week:

They (players) had a great time. It was a beautiful week for our kids. I’m just excited for them to have the opportunity to go to the (Civil Rights) Museum, the Aquarium, the College Football Hall of Fame and all the other activities they had planned for us. I know our team enjoyed themselves and I think the fans enjoyed it too. It was a heckuva football game.”

What started off as a blowout turned into a hard-fought matchup that may have very well started a rivalry between the two schools. The final score was NC A&T 41, Alcorn State 34.

Who you should know

Tarik Cohen

  • With 1,543 rushing yards this season, he set the school’s single-season rushing record.
  • Has amassed seven straight 100-yard rushing games, including today’s 295-yard effort on 22 carries.
  • This is his fourth career 200-yard rushing game

Khris Gardin

  • With 74 punt return yards in the game, Gardin broke the FCS record for punt return yards in a season. He finished with 740 yards this season, breaking the previous record of 667 yards set by Montana’s Tuff Harris in 2006
  • Garmin returned the first punt of the game 74 yards for a touchdown – his third punt return touchdown this season
  • It was his second-longest return of the season. Garmin also had a 71-yard punt return for touchdown versus Hampton.

 

-Jon J.

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