ATLANTA – There is a saying that permeates inside the Bryan Fitness and Wellness Center and Aggie Stadium on the campus of North Carolina A&T State University: If something good happens, keep playing. If something bad happens, keep playing.
There was plenty of good and bad that happened to N.C. A&T during the inaugural Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl Saturday afternoon. The Aggies withstood it all in front of a national television audience on ABC to win the school’s third HBCU National Football Championship with a 41-34 victory over SWAC champion Alcorn State at the Georgia Dome.
The Aggies are now 4-4 in bowl games all-time and will forever hold the distinction of being the first-ever Celebration Bowl Champion. For N.C. A&T head coach Rod Broadway, it was his first career postseason win.
Some may say junior Tarik Cohen was introduced to the nation over the summer thanks to the fact his videos of doing backflips while catching one, sometimes two footballs went viral and earned him live appearances on ESPN SportsCenter. But if some around the country thought his talents only consisted of backflips, then they saw a whole new side of him on Saturday.
Cohen rushed for 295 yards and three touchdowns and had some amazing runs that had Twitter nation buzzing. In fact, the Celebration Bowl was ESPN’s second-highest trending event on Twitter. Cohen played a big role in that.
“We’ve said all along Tarik’s special,” said Broadway. “I guess the nation got a chance to see what we’ve known he is capable of doing for three years now. He had a big game for us, and we needed it.”
But Cohen wanted to talk about the guys who weren’t being discussed on social media.
“Without my offensive line none of this would have been possible,” said Cohen. “I felt like they played a tremendous game. All week they have been hearing how they are holding the team back. A lot of people want to say they are the soft point of our team. So they took that and ran with it, and showed everybody on national TV they are not to be messed with.”
It has been a season of good and bad that would perhaps derail most teams without the Aggies motto. Not only had the play of the offensive line been brought into question, but the offense as a whole. Late in the season the Aggies struggled offensively in a 9-6 win at S.C. State. The following week the offense didn’t blowout the Delaware State Hornets the way many thought they would. Then came the loss to N.C. Central where the Aggies scored 16 points, seven of them on a kickoff return.
It led prognosticators to believe the combinations of the offensive struggles late in the season, Alcorn’s powerful running game and the disappointment of losing to their archrival, N.C. Central two years in a row, would be too much for the Aggies to overcome. Too bad they didn’t know the motto. The Aggies compiled a season-high 543 yards of offense. Senior quarterback Kwashaun Quick threw for 149 yards on 11-for-16 passing with no interceptions. Meanwhile, the Braves were held to a season low 260 yards of offense.
“Central wanted to beat us a little more than we wanted to beat them and that’s the honest truth,” said senior cornerback Tony McRae. “Making the bowl game gave us a chance to refocus and become hungry again.”
The Aggies finished the season 10-2 overall. It is their first 10-win season in 12 years. It marks the third time in school history the Aggies have recorded double-digit wins in a season (1999, 2003, 2105).
Not bad. Only good.
Tarik Cohen had already scored on runs of 74 and 83 and sophomore punt returner Khris Gardin had a 74-yard punt return as the Aggies led 24-6 midway through the second quarter.
But an interception by freshman quarterback Kylil Carter gave the Braves the ball on the N.C. A&T 10-yard line. Lenorris Footman then completed a 10-yard pass to Aaron Baker to help the Braves halt the Aggies momentum, and gain a little of their own.
In fact, the Braves kept getting the breaks in their rally against A&T. A 47-yard kickoff return set the Braves up at the Aggies 49 which led to a score. With the Aggies leading 27-20 in the third quarter, the Braves also blocked a Cody Jones field goal, which led to the game-tying score at 27.
The Aggies regained the lead on a 1-yard Quick touchdown, but an unsportsmanlike penalty on the ensuing kickoff gave the Braves the ball at their 48, leading to another game-tying score.
The one mistake that didn’t harm the Aggies eventually became the games finally turning point. Leading 41-34, Aggies punter Steven Sawicki shanked a 6-yard punt giving the Braves the ball at the 50. On 4th-and-9 from the Aggies 9, Footman’s pass dropped incomplete in the final seconds to give the Aggies the win.
Player of the game
It was Tarik Cohen who recorded his fourth career 200-yard rushing performance. He ties Maurice Hicks for the most 200-yard plus games in an Aggies career. The Aggies are 3-1 when Cohen rushes for more than 200 yards.
Stats of the game
Cohen’s 295 yards helped him break the school’s single-season rushing record. The record was 1,487 yards by Maurice Hicks in 2000. Cohen ends the 2015 season with 1,543 yards and 15 touchdowns. He is now four TD’s shy of breaking Stoney Polite’s career mark of 41.
Cohen’s 295 was third best single-game rushing performance in school history behind Maurice Hicks’ 437-yard game at Morgan State in 2001 and Hicks’ 353 performance vs. S.C. State in 2000.
Three of Cohen’s runs Saturday rank among the top-15 in school history in terms of distance. His 83-yarder is tied for the fourth longest run in school history. His 74-yarder is 14th and the 73-yarder is 15th.
Khris Gardin broke the NCAA FCS records for punt return yards in season. He finished the season with 740 punt return yards to establish the new mark. His 61.7 punt return yards per game is also a new NCAA record. He broke the total punt return yards record on a 74-yard punt return for TD which served as the game’s first points.
Alcorn State’s 260 yards of offense was a season-low for the Braves.
Aggies junior kicker Cody Jones made two field goals from 40 yards or more. It is the first time in his career he has accomplished the feat. He has made five kicks in his career of 40 yards or more.
The Aggies 543 yards of total offense are the most the Aggies have compiled in the five-year Broadway era.
The Aggies are now 13-12 all-time against SWAC schools.