The inaugural Celebration Bowl will go down as an event to remember for more than one reason. The game matched the champions from two historically black Division-1 conferences, the MEAC and the SWAC, ultimately crowning North Carolina A&T of the MEAC the HBCU Champs. Aggies’ running back Tarik Cohen took full advantage of the platform as he was the brightest star in the field.
Although Cohen earned offensive MVP, his teammate Khris Gardin set the pace. The Aggies forced the Alcorn State Braves to a punt on their first drive after winning the toss electing to defer to the second half. That decision worked well for NCAT as Gardin got the crowd into the game with a 74-yard punt return for a touchdown. The Aggies were the faster and more athletic team which was later shown in their play. ASU wasn’t fazed or stunned by Gardin’s big return, they have a playmaker on their special teams unit as well in senior Anthony Williams Jr. Williams showcased his speed by taking his return 84-yard for a score. ASU failed their 2-point conversion and the Tarik Cohen show began.
Cohen has a very unique skill set. He’s listed at 5’6″ and 173, which might be generous, but he uses his size, speed and strength to his advantage. Cohen says he patterns his game after shifty backs like LeSean McCoy and Jamaal Charles but also spends time watching bigger powerful backs like Adrian Peterson and LaGarrette Blount. Cohen like the bigger backs because he wants to prove to teams that he can play physical despite his small frame. Cohen finished the game with 348 total yards, 295 on the ground off of 22 carries, and 53 yards receiving. Cohen had three touchdown runs of 74, 83 and 73 yards proving that big things come in small packages.
ASU did not back down from the spotlight either despite coming up a little short. Their 260 total yards of offense didn’t match the 543 yards the Aggies tallied but the Braves were able to maximize their opportunities by scoring touchdowns several times when giving the short field. After being down 24-6, ASU hit A&T with flurry they couldn’t handle. Quarterback Lenorris Footman found running back Aaron Baker for a 10-yard score only to follow it up by catching a 9-yard touchdown pass from wide receiver Tollette George on a trick play. Footman was in a giving mood, he returned the favor to George by finding him on an 11-yard pass. The Aggies were able to score a field goal in the middle of ASU’s attack leaving the game tied at 27 with 12:57 left in the game.
The next 4 possessions were dominated by both teams offenses until the last 30 seconds of the game. Aggies quarterback Kwashaun Quick scored on a 1-yard run giving his team a 34-27 lead after the PAT. Footman then put together one of his most impressive drives of the game. He took his team right down the field play after play landing them in the red zone. The offense stalled leaving the Braves with a difficult decision on fourth down. Coach Jay Hopson rolled the dice by scoring a touchdown on a fake field goal pass play. After the extra point, the game was tied once again. Tarik Cohen wasn’t done yet, he had one more play left in his tank. On the second play of the possession, Cohen went 73-yards, as previously mentioned, to the house for what would be the game winning touchdown. ASU marched down he field but where unable to score after Footman threw four incomplete passes from the 9-yard line.
Ultimately the Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl was a complete success. It allowed two well deserving HBCU’s to compete for a championship on the national level. There were 35,528 fans and supporters in attendance of the inaugural game and the future looks bright. Congratulations to coach Rod Broadway and North Carolina A&T on winning the Celebration Bowl and being crowned the HBCU champs.