North Carolina A&T’s offense stood at center stage Saturday in the inaugural Celebration Bowl after taking a backseat to the Aggies’ nationally ranked defensive unit all season.
With junior running back Tarik Cohen running rings around the Alcorn State defense North Carolina A&T held on for a 41-34 nationally televised (ABC) victory at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta to clinch the 2015 Black College National Championship. Cohen, the two-time MEAC Offensive Player of the Year, ran for 295 yards and scored three touchdowns on runs of 84, 73 and 74 yards en route to earning MVP honors.
“We’ve said all along Tarik’s special,” said North Carolina Coach Rod Broadway. “I guess the nation got a chance to see what we’ve been looking at what he is capable of doing for three years now. He had a big game for us, and we needed it.’’
Cohen’s performance was the fourth 200-yard plus game of his career, his seventh consecutive game with 100 or more rushing yards and the 21st time he has surpassed the century mark during his career. He also caught two passes for 53 yards.
“He was a difference-maker in the football game,” Alcorn coach Jay Hopson said. “A couple of times we had him wrapped up and he made a play, but you have to give great players credit. He stood up and made big plays.”
Cohen wasn’t the only big-play maker for the Aggies. Khris Gardin jump-started North Carolina A&T with a first period 74-yard punt return touchdown for the game’s first points. Gardin broke the FCS record for return yards in a season with 814 on that play.
Alcorn matched Gardin’s touchdown with an Anthony Williams 84-yard score on a punt return that made the score 7-6 following a botched extra point attempt. Cohen ripped off long touchdown runs on each of the Aggies next two possessions, and Cody Jones added a 45-yard field goal to give the Aggies a 24-6 lead early in the second quarter.
Alcorn battled back and tied the score 27-all and again at 34-all. Cohen gave North Carolina A&T its final lead with his third touchdown run, a 74-yarder, with 4:17 remaining.
However, the game was far from over at that point. Alcorn got the ball back with 1:28. Starting at midfield, the Braves drove to North Carolina A&T’s nine-yard line. They turned the ball over on downs when quarterback Lenorris Footman’s pass to Tollette George in the end zone was incomplete.
North Carolina A&T entered the game ranked second in the FCS in rushing defense, and the Aggies lived up to their ranking. Despite giving up a season-high for points, the Aggies held Alcorn fifth-ranked rushing attack to only 104 yards.
The National Championship puts the finishing touches on an impressive rebuilding job by Broadway, who is in his fifth season at North Carolina A&T. When he took over in 2011, the Aggies were coming off a 1-10 record and only had 29 scholarship athletes compared to the 63 maximum allowed at the FCS level. In addition, they had lost 27 straight games during the 2006-07 seasons.
Alcorn was trying to win its second consecutive National Championship. Instead, the Braves (9-4) suffered their third loss to an FCS opponent by seven points or fewer. Their other FCS losses were to Grambling State 35-34 in overtime and to Prairie View A&M 40-34. The Braves’ fourth loss was to Georgia Tech 69-6 in the first game of the season.
“It was a hard-fought football game; those are always tough to lose,” Hopson said. “Give North Carolina A&T a lot of credit. They played a very good football game, exceptional game. We played hard and gave ourselves a chance, but just fell short.”
Four straight possessions ended with punts and the fifth with an interception.