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By Lut Williams
Black College Sports Page Editor

ATLANTA, Ga. – The saying goes that ‘speed kills.’ Ask Alcorn State if you don’t believe it.

In the first Celebration Bowl before a crowd of 35,528 fans at the Georgia Dome Saturday afternoon, North Carolina A&T used its speedsters to score on runs of 74, 74, 83 and 73 yards but needed a stop from its defense in the final seconds to come away with an exciting 41-34 win in the first bowl game pitting champions of the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) and the Mid Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC).tarik cohen celebration bwlCohen photo

Playing before a national television audience on ABC, A&T junior all-American running back Tarik Cohen, the MEAC offensive player of the year, was the star of the game, scoring on runs of 74 and 83 yards in the first quarter, and capping an exhilarating 22-carry, 295-yard day with a 73-yard, game-clinching touchdown run, straight up the middle, with 4:17 left in the game.

Alcorn State (9-4), who fought back from a 24-6 second quarter deficit to make it a game, got the ball back with 1:10 left and drove to the A&T 9 in the game’s final half-minute. But quarterback Lenorris Footman’s fourth-down pass sailed high over the head of wideout Tollete George in the end zone with six just ticks left on the clock.

A&T (10-2) needed one kneel down from quarterback Kwashaun Quick to claim the win.
With 295 rushing yards and 53 yards on two receptions, Cohen totalled 348 yards, far surpassing the 260 total yards that Alcorn State put up on the day.

“We’ve said all along Tarik is special, and I guess the nation had a chance to see him perform today,” said victorious A&T head coach Rod Broadway. “We’ve been saying it for three years now what he’s capable of doing. He had a big game for us, and we needed it.”

Alcorn State’s vaunted rushing attack, which came in averaging 309 rushing yards per game, third highest in the FCS, was held to 104 yards on 32 attempts by the Aggie defense.

“I’m a little disappointed how we played defensively,” said Broadway. "We’re a little better than that. That’s the most points we’ve given up in a long time. Again, they had 260 yards but the points production and the total yardage doesn’t marry.  But it’s a win. We’ll take it. I’m not going to complain today.

“We’ll work on that in the offseason and see if we can get better.”

SWAC back-to-back champion Alcorn State and MEAC co-champ N. C. A&T entered the game first and third respectively in the Black College Sports Page Top Ten. A&T, who shared the MEAC title for the second consecutive year, this time with Bethune-Cookman and North Carolina Central, made a strong case for being the final No. 1 team in 2015 with the win.

“Give North Carolina A&T all the credit,” said gracious Alcorn State head coach Jay Hopson in defeat.  

“He’s just a dynamic back and a good football player,” Hopson said of Cohen, named the game’s offensive MVP. “There were a couple of times where we had him hemmed up, he stuck his foot in the turf and changed direction and all of a sudden he made a play. He’s just a dynamic football player. All the credit to him and their offensive unit.”

The game started in spectacular fashion.

After the Aggies stopped the Braves on the game’s first possession in a three-and-out, A&T sophomore all-American kick returner Khris Gardin brought back the game’s first punt by Alcorn’s Haiden McRainey 74 yards to paydirt. After Cody Jones’ PAT, the Aggies led 7-0 less than 90 seconds into the game. The return allowed Gardin to break the national FCS record for punt return yards in a season. He had 666 yards entering the game and needed just two yards to break Montana’s Tuff Harris’s record. Gardin finished the day with two returns for 74 yards.

Alcorn was stopped again on a three-and-out, and after punting, returned the favor stopping the Aggies on three downs. Steve Sawicki’s punt was then brought back 84 yards by Alcorn senior Anthony Williams Jr. for a touchdown. McRainey missed the PAT leaving Alcorn trailing 7-6 with 10:01 left in the first quarter.

On the ensuing A&T possession, after three completions and one incompletion by Quick, Cohen took a pitchout to the right cut back across the field and scampered 74 yards for his second score. Jones’ PAT gave A&T a 14-6 lead at the 7:44 mark of the first quarter.

But the 5-6, 170-pounder wasn’t finished.

After Alcorn was stopped and punted back to A&T, Cohen took a first down handoff and this time covered 83 yards, weaving his way behind downfield blockers, before cutting back and running into the end zone. After Jones’s third PAT, the Aggies were up 21-6 with 3:15 left in the quarter. In the first quarter, Cohen rushed five times for 166 yards and two scores.

A&T added a 45-yard Jones field goal early in the second quarter to lead 24-6. It stayed that way until A&T back-up quarterback Kylil Carter’s pass from deep in Aggie territory was picked off by Williams at the A&T 34 and returned 24 yards to the A&T 10 with 5:23 left in the half. On first down following the pick, Footman hit running back Arron Baker from the 10 for a key score. With McRainey’s PAT, the Braves trailed 24-13 at the 5:13 mark.

            That’s the way the half ended.

A&T took the second half kickoff and drove 57 yards in ten plays to go up 27-13 on Jones’ 43-yard field goal. But it was then that the momentum shifted to Alcorn’s side.

Alcorn’s Marquis Warford returned the ensuing kickoff 47 yards to set the Braves up at the A&T 49. Footman then engineered an 8-play, 49-yard drive culminating in his 9-yard toss to George for a score. McRainey’s kick pulled the Braves within 27-20 at the 6:35 mark.

McRainey tried an onside kick on the ensuing kickoff but A&T reserve wideout Michael Weaver recovered at the Alcorn 46. The Aggies drove to the Alcorn 10, but Jones's 27-yard field goal attempt was blocked by Alcorn defensive back Warren Gatewood and returned by Wiliams to the Alcorn 31. On the 11th play of the ensuing drive, Tollete took a reverse handoff and hit Footman for an 11-yard score. McRainey’s PAT produced the game's first tie at 27 with 12:57 left in the final period.

The Aggies came right back to go up 34-27 following an 81-yard drive engineered by Quick, who covered the final yard for the score. The big play in the drive was a 52-yard screen pass to Cohen, who broke several tackles and made several Braves miss while taking the ball to the Alcorn 29. Quick also hit wide receiver Kevin Francis for 20 yards down to the Alcorn 10. A face mask penalty on the play took the ball to the five. Two plays later, Quick went over for the score.

Not to be denied, Alcorn State then marched 52 yards in nine plays to tie the score at 34. The touchdown came after the Braves drove the A&T 3 and lined up for a 20-yard field goal. Instead, holder Brandon Vessell took the snap, rolled right and found Brandon Campbell inside the right pylon for the score with 5:10 to play.

After the kickoff, and on second down, Cohen put the finishing touches on his magnificent day, going 73 yards up the middle for the game-winner.

Quick, a senior, was superbly efficient. He hit on 11 of 18 passes for 149 yards with no interceptions, escaped the rush and made several plays with his feet while rushing for 39 yards on nine carries without a loss.

Free safety Jamaal Darden led the Aggie defense with seven stops, five solos. Middle linebacker Denzel Jones was also credited with five tackles and had the only interception of Footman. Jones won the defensive MVP award.

Footman finished 14 of 36 for 144 yards and two touchdowns. Senior running back Darryan Ragsdale, who came in averaging 91 yard per game, was held to 62 rushing yards on 15 carries. Footman, who was rushing for 96 yards per game, was limited to 62 yards on 12 carries. 

“He played well in the second half for sure,” said Hopson of Footman, who completed 8 of 16 passes after the break. “He did some tremendous things for us today, helping us come back, and giving us that final chance.”

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