ATLANTA — North Carolina Central had taken a punch to the gut.
The underdog Eagles had not only hung in with favored Jackson State but, at points, bullied the much-heralded and undefeated opponent.
But after NC Central had taken a 34-27 lead late in the fourth quarter, Jackson State showed its championship mettle by surviving a pair of fourth downs, including one with just seven seconds left in regulation to score the game-tying touchdown on a pass from Jackson State quarterback Shedeur Sanders to five-star freshman Travis Hunter to force overtime.
It was time for Davius Richard and the NC Central offense — like they’ve done all game — to respond despite the sudden blow from the Tigers.
The Walter Payton Award finalist needed four plays to go ahead on a 1-yard Richard quarterback sneak to regain momentum. Richard finished the game with 97 yards rushing Richard ran for 97 yards and two touchdowns on the ground to go along with 175 yards passing and a touchdown toss.
Again, the chance to win the championship and pull off one of the biggest upsets in bowl game history relied on a defense that had been stunned minutes earlier.
Jackson State drove to the 1-yard line and it appeared that the Tigers would once again tie the score when Sanders floated a pass to an open Hayden Hagler who dropped a sure TD. On the next play, Sanders fired a pass in the direction of Kevin Coleman that sailed out of bounds.
Bodies rushed from the NC Central sideline to the middle of the field. Pyrotechnics activated. Confetti fell from Mercedes Benz Superdome. The Eagles, a 16-point underdog, had stopped perfection and won the HBCU national championship 41-34 in front of a record crowd of 49,670.
“We didn’t really do anything special, we just did what we did all season,” said NC Central coach Trei Oliver. “So I thought the whole season we kept our same mentality, the same mindset, and we knew what was at stake.”
With the win, the Eagles (10-2) improved the MEAC’s record over the SWAC in the Celebration Bowl to 6-1 earned its fifth consecutive victory in the Celebration Bowl.
“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.”