North Carolina Central alumnus Trei Oliver guided a veteran Eagles squad to redemption Saturday afternoon beating the undefeated Jackson State Tigers 41-34 in overtime. Nearly 50,000 fans filled Mercedes Benz Stadium to watch the Cricket Celebration Bowl making it the largest crowd in its short seven-year history.
In winning the game, the MEAC champs denied Jackson State’s departing head coach Deion Sanders an opportunity to ride off into the sunset with a bit of HBCU football history.
None of the NC Central players or coaches on Saturday’s roster were with the Eagles during their first Celebration Bowl appearance and loss after a controversial call that has become known as Helmet Gate.
In that 2016 game, the Eagles’ seemingly game-tying score that could have sent the game into overtime was altered by an unsportsmanlike penalty after the receiver removed his helmet while celebrating in the end zone.
The NCCU fans remembered and they showed up in numbers in hopes of joining their rivals from North Carolina A&T as Celebration Bowl and National Black College Football champions.
When asked on Friday what other preparations needed to be done to get his team ready for Saturday’s game Oliver responded confidently, “Nothing.” Oliver and his staff began preparing the 39th-ranked Eagles for the eventual showdown with the 10th-ranked team in FCS football the week after Thanksgiving and their last regular season game a 22-20 win over Tennessee Tech.
The way the Eagles delivered the game’s first two scores and a 10-0 lead was evidence of that preparation. Junior quarterback Davius Richard showed out. The Walter Payton Award finalist passed for 46 yards, caught a pass for 31 yards, and rushed for 26 yards including a 4-yard touchdown in the Eagles’ first two possessions.
Jackson State answered back with a 4-play scoring drive that covered 64 yards in 52 seconds. Shedeur Sanders capped the drive by floating a 22-yard pass behind the secondary to D.J. Stevens (Gr). The 6’3 220-pound tight end backed the last two yards into the end zone.
Big plays have been part of the Tigers’ DNA this season. Sanders demonstrated such with an 85-yard catch and haul ass by Kevin Coleman Jr. down the sideline.
Not many of Jackson State’s opponents were capable of matching them score-for-score. Typically the defense took over once the offense assumed the lead.
The Eagles held defense on its heels with a solid running game and a few trickeration plays. Senior offensive guard Xi Simpson and his brothers in the trench opened holes in the Tigers’ front seven forcing them to honor the Eagles’ rushing attack.
Richards and company answered the Tigers’ second touchdown with an 11-play drive that picked up 53 of the 75 yards, including the last 10, on the ground. J’Mari Taylor cut back as the line collapsed the Tigers’ front and ran through Aubrey Miller for the go-ahead score.
The two best teams in HBCU football counter-punched either other for 60 minutes of regulation minutes. Jackson State threw the Tigers’ last counter of the game. Sanders went back to freshman Travis Hunter in the endzone right after the former Gwinnett County star dropped a pass. This time Hunter held on as the clock flashed zeros. Alejandro Mata split the uprights to send the contest into overtime.
Leading up to the game, Head Coach Deion Sanders talked about dominating opponents. Jackson State was able to dominate teams this season because they had either lesser talent across the board, depth, experience together, or coaching acumen.
Last year, veteran coach Buddy Pough’s South Carolina State gave a dominating performance by thumping the Tigers 31-10 in Sanders’ and Jackson State’s first appearance in the championship game. Pough has vast experience at the coaching level which translated into signing talent, building a formidable team, and developing a game plan that produced awe-inspiring results.
Everything Pough did to make SC State a monster was the road map employed by Oliver. The Eagles’ former First Team All-CIAA defensive back and punter returned to the Durham campus with 20 years of experience as an assistant coach in both the SWAC and MEAC.
Oliver’s coaching experience extended into Celebration Bowl wins. He was a member of Rod Broadway’s coaching staff that led the NC A&T Aggies to a Black National Championship in 2015. Broadway was on hand to witness his former assistant’s victory. When asked about the outcome during the post-game celebration, the legendary coach chuckled while turning to another NC A&T Celebration Bowl-winning coach Sam Washington and quipped, “I thought it was going to be 42-10.”
Oliver’s offensive line continued dominating the Tigers’ front. The Eagles rushed for 276 yards as a team. Junior tailback Latrell Collier and Richards each rushed for nearly 100 yards on the day. In the fifth quarter, Collier rushed for 22 yards including a 19-yarder – complete with a jaw-dropping stiff arm to Cam’ron Simon-Craig – jaunt down to the Tigers 3.
Oliver and his offensive coordinators Matt Leone and Cedric Williams didn’t get fancy in close. They simply reflected on their decision not to keep running the ball which resulted in a loss to mutual opponent Campbell. Jackson State defeated Campbell 22-14. This time NCCU did not veer from its game plan. “It starts up front with the offensive line,” said Oliver.
The offensive line met the challenge getting enough push Richard to get in the end zone. The touchdown put the Tigers in an unfamiliar position. Jackson State won every game this season by at least a touchdown. Needing at least a touchdown in overtime was new.
Passing the ball was JSU’s forte and rightfully so with a talent like Sanders under center. However, in short-field situations having to rely on the pass is risky. Hayden Hagler’s dropped pass in the end zone on third down created a desperate situation for the Tigers.
Pressure from NC Central’s front on Sanders forced an errant throw to Coleman that sailed high and almost into the stands to end the game.
All Images c. Jason McDonald, JM Photography for CORE360 Sports