Celebration Bowl: Jackson State vs. South Carolina State
Photo: Christina Merrion/HBCU Sports

The Celebration Bowl was billed as a Jackson State coronation.

The Deion Sanders-led Tigers were supposed to waltz into Mercedes-Benz Stadium to enjoy an Atlanta homecoming for its flamboyant coach en route to a certain HBCU national championship to cap off a dominant season.

South Carolina State was an afterthought and a 10.5-point underdog going in.

Led by a dogged defense that harassed Jerry Rice Award winner Shedeur Sanders, forcing three turnovers, and an offense that exploded for 21 second-half points, South Carolina State upset Jackson State 31-10 on Saturday in front of 48,653 fans to win its third Black College National Championship under head coach Buddy Pough.

It was also the fifth win by the MEAC in six meetings versus the SWAC champion since 2015.

“When you been around for 40 some-odd years, they all seem to run together a little bit,” said Pough about where he would rank this win during his coaching tenure. “I can tell you this is as big as I can remember.”

The Tigers (11-2) started the scoring in the first quarter, with freshman quarter Sheduer Sanders connecting with wide receiver Keith Corbin III on a 7-yard touchdown strike to cap a 9-play, 66-yard drive to give JSU a 7-0 lead.

From there, it was a defensive struggle on both sides for much of the first half until South Carolina State scored 10 unanswered points in the final 2:08 ignited by Jablonski Green strip-sack of Sanders. Three plays later, Corey Fields Jr., hit Shaq Davis on a 5-yard TD pass.

The immediate turn of events sparked by the defense was something that Green said was needed to aid its fledging offense a create momentum.

“The whole time on the sideline we were like, ‘we need to make a play, we need to get a sack on ’em,'” said Green. “I think it did shift the momentum.”

After forcing a JSU punt, the Bulldogs embarked on a 10-play, 36-yard drive that ended on a Gavyn Zimmerman 26-yard field goal to give the Bulldogs an unexpected 10-7 lead at intermission.

South Carolina State (7-5), a team that at points during the regular season struggled with offensive consistency, scored 14 points off a pair of Sanders interceptions that set up the Bulldogs attack deep in Jackson State territory.

Fields hit Davis on a 16-yard TD strike and then later Richard Bailey for a 15-yard score to extend its lead to 24-7 with 8:43 remaining in the third quarter.

A Glenn Misiak 36-yard field goal ended a 24-point run by the Bulldogs to draw JSU within 24-10.

But Fields and the Bulldogs offense remained undaunted as the sophomore quarterback hooked up with Davis again, this time on a 16-yard connect that led to a celebratory TikTok dance and a 31-10 lead.

Davis set a Celebration Bowl record with three receiving touchdowns. Fields, who started the game 1-of-6 for minus-1 yard, finished the day 12-of-31 for 166 yards and four touchdowns, and one interception.

“I would have to say it was getting all the jitters out and just playing football,” Fields said in response to a question about how he righted his performance.

For Sanders, after going 4-of-4 on the Tigers’ only TD drive, he committed three turnovers, including two interceptions and was held to 175 yards passing.

“I just didn’t see it,” said Sanders about the Bulldogs’ defensive scheme and execution that limited the Tigers’ offense to 194 total yards and 29 yards rushing.

Jackson State, the overwhelming favorites heading into the Celebration Bowl, said head coach Deion Sanders, will regroup after the disappointing loss.

“I’m already thinking about spring, spring ball, spring practice, you know,” he said. “I’m looking at how to get these kids stronger, faster, more disciplined. I’m already thinking about that kind of stuff.

“I promise you we’re going to come back stronger and ready, and prayerfully, prepared. South Carolina State — they kicked our butts (and) they deserve it.”


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