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North Carolina Central wins Celebration Bowl, spoils Jackson State’s perfect season

Eagles avenge 2016 heartbreak with 41-34 overtime victory over Tigers

ATLANTA — Exactly six years after North Carolina Central left the Celebration Bowl in tears after a one-point loss to Grambling State, coach Trei Oliver and the Eagles left Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Saturday with a happier outcome.

The Eagles (10-2) spoiled Jackson State’s (12-1) perfect season, defeating the Tigers 41-34 in overtime to earn the program’s first Celebration Bowl title. 

North Carolina Central quarterback Davius Richard, the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) offensive player of the year, led the way for the Eagles, completing 15 of 20 passes for 177 yards and one touchdown. Richard also was the team’s second-leading rusher, running for 97 yards and two touchdowns on the ground.

“We didn’t really do anything special, we just did what we did all season,” he said. “So I thought the whole season [we] kept our same mentality, the same mindset, and we knew what was at stake.”

The Eagles secured the victory in overtime after stopping the Tigers on a potentially game-clinching fourth down as Jackson State quarterback Shedeur Sanders’ pass sailed over wide receiver Kevin Coleman Jr. The Tigers dropped an open pass on third down.

With the Eagles’ win, the MEAC earned its fifth consecutive victory in the Celebration Bowl and leads the overall series 6-1.

“It will continue to show everybody that we play really good football in our conference,” Oliver said. “I don’t expect a whole lot to change. … We didn’t have much pressure on us.”

North Carolina Central entered the game as the underdog, and Oliver didn’t appreciate several incidents he perceived as disrespect.

“Their athletic director [Ashley Robinson] addressed us as North Carolina State University. We pull up to a dinner the other night, [their] buses won’t move. They got to drop our guys off in the middle of a street,” Oliver said.

“Pregame we’re supposed to come out at a certain time before the national anthem. For whatever reason, the team wasn’t ready, so they stopped everything. My guys sat in the tunnel for 10 minutes waiting to come out. But it didn’t matter. … They’re gonna put some respect on our name and Black colleges.”

The Eagles got off to a fast start, leading the Tigers 10-0 early in the first quarter. Jackson State responded by outscoring North Carolina Central 21-7 in the final 23 minutes of the first half to take a 21-17 lead into halftime.

North Carolina Central offensive coordinator Matt Leone wasn’t afraid to get creative with his playcalling. Wide receiver E.J. Hicks found Richard for 31 yards for a “Philly Special” in the first quarter. The Eagles also converted a fake punt, with tight end Kyle Morgan running for 43 yards in the third quarter, and when the Eagles needed a two-point conversion in the fourth quarter, Hicks found Richard again to give the Eagles a 7-point lead.

“We saw some things that were open, and we were able to take advantage of [and] I thought the fake punt changed the course of the game,” Oliver said. “We’ve got to be prepared for every situation when it comes to this game. So [the two-point conversion] was a play we’ve been running for a while and I thought it was there, and the guys executed.”

The Eagles tallied 484 total yards, the most yards gained against Jackson State this season. In his final game as head coach of Jackson State, Deion Sanders believed the defense was a deciding factor. 

“I think darn near every trick play they did worked,” Sanders said. “Defense didn’t show up today by any means. Offensively, we got it done, and I’m still replaying that second-to-the-last play that we didn’t come up with. … It’s kind of surreal.”

Jackson State senior linebacker Aubrey Miller said the team’s defense knew it had fallen short.

“We know key players had left, but we still made sure we did what we could,” said Miller, who finished the game with 11 tackles. “Guys just didn’t do their job, and the guys that are supposed to have their back wasn’t there. We tried to maximize opportunities that we had. Everything that we thought they were gonna do they did, but we just didn’t [do] our job.”

Both teams had miscues following touchdowns. Eagles kicker Adrian Olivo missed a PAT late in the third quarter, and Jackson State failed to convert a two-point conversion early in the fourth.

In what was expected to be his final game at Jackson State, Shedeur Sanders completed 30 of 40 passes for 349 yards and scored four touchdowns. When the Tigers needed a touchdown to tie the game, he found cornerback/wide receiver Travis Hunter with seven seconds remaining for a 19-yard strike to send the game into overtime.

Hunter finished the game with four catches for 47 yards and two touchdowns on offense; on defense he finished with five tackles and one pass breakup. 

“[Hunter] has been doing it all season. We just had to find the right time to put him on the field. When he’s on defense, he’s dominating,” Deion Sanders said. “Last play a lot of chaos was going on. So I’m like, Travis is Travis Hunter. He’s him for a reason. … All I did was put air on it. He did all the work. … I believed we was gonna go down there, drive down and score.”

Oliver was the defensive backs coach for the North Carolina A&T team that won the inaugural Celebration Bowl in 2015. Winning the Celebration Bowl as head coach of his alma mater, though, held extra significance.

“My parents went to Central, so I had a chip on my shoulder [and] a little motivation to try to get North Carolina Central back on top,” Oliver said. “I’m really happy that I had an opportunity to come back and lead this program. I’m humbled and honored.”

Defensive back Khalil Baker, the defensive MVP of the game, said that the Eagles believed in their potential.

“From the first game we knew the type of team that we had and things that we could accomplish,” he said. “So from there on, we kept our head down and kept working.”

Jackson State’s defeat marked its only loss of the season, ending Deion Sanders’ tenure as head coach of a historically Black college without a Celebration Bowl win. He finished his coaching career at Jackson State with a 27-6 record, two Southwestern Athletic Conference championships and two Celebration Bowl appearances.

“I don’t play or coach for legacy, I coach for kids. … It’s not a job to me,” Sanders said. “I wanted to have a last opportunity to speak to my team as a unit, so that’s why I was trying to get them in and comfort them as well.

“A lot of those young men were emotional because we didn’t fathom a loss. We don’t think like that.”

Mia Berry is the senior HBCU writer for Andscape and covers everything from sports to student-led protests. She is a Detroit native (What up Doe!), long-suffering Detroit sports fan and Notre Dame alumna who randomly shouts, "Go Irish."