Some 24 hours before North Carolina Central head coach Trei Oliver was clear about what would be required to win the Celebration Bowl.
Oliver, who played at NC Central and won a Black Colleg National Championship with North Carolina A&T as an assistant in 2015, explained the Eagles would not stray away from the identity that had defined its season.
“There is no special sauce, magic, or anything like that,” Oliver said on Friday. “Just play ball, man. That’s all it is.”
Not only did the Eagles just play, but they attacked Jackson State’s strength with their own.
On the Eagles’ first possession, quarterback Davius Richard hit wide receiver E.J. Hicks for a 31-yard gain, badly beating No. 1 recruit Travis Hunter who was on the coverage.
NC Central ended the 7-play drive with an Adrian Olivo 32-yard field goal to jump to a quick 3-0 lead.
After offensive coordinator Matt Leone established that NC Central would target the Tigers’ secondary, the Eagles then proceeded to strike its strong defensive front on the ground.
Richard used a combination of designed and off-schedule runs to pile up 95 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winning score in the 41-34 overtime win.
When it was not the MEAC Offensive Player of the Year creating havoc with his arm and legs, Latrell Collier pounded Jackson State for 98 yards and a TD on 5.8 yards per carry.
In total, NC Central tallied 267 rushing yards and held the ball for 38:09 against the best defense in the FCS.
“That’s what we’re gonna do – we run the football,” Trei Oliver told the media. “We’re a physical football team, and it starts up front. So, we let our guys run that rock today. We saw some things that were open, and we were able to take advantage of them.”
Despite Oliver suggesting that NC Central didn’t need to execute illusions to hang with what had been a 12-0 opponent, there was one timely trick pulled that changed momentum when the Eagles needed it most.
With NC Central trailing 21-17 in the third quarter, Oliver he dipped deep into his playbook. Tight end Kyle Morgan took the snap on a fake punt and ran 43 yards to the Jackson State 24. Richard later hit Quentin McCall on a 12-yard TD pass that gave North Carolina Central a 23-21 lead.
“I thought the fake punt changed the course of the game,” Oliver said. “We talk about situations all the time, and we have to be prepared for every situation when it comes to this game. So that was a play we’ve been running for a while, and the guys executed.”
That sequence proceeded a second-quarter series when wide receiver E.J. Hicks was called on to throw a pass and found Richard for a 30-yard gain. Richard later scored on a 5-yard scamper to put NC Central up two scores. Richard also caught a pass on a two-point conversion attempt.
“That wears on the opponent, especially on their psyche, and you gotta keep people on their heels.”
And even after Jackson State remarkably tied the game as time expired in regulation on a 19-yard TD reception by JSU wide receiver Travis Hunter, North Carolina Central remained undaunted. The Eagles, however, stayed steady to win its first Black National Championship since moving to the FCS from Division II in 2005.
Said Richard, who was named Celebration Bowl Offensive MVP, about the effort:
“This wasn’t the first time we’ve been in this situation. We’ve been in overtime before. We’ve been in too many games like this. Our coaches preached to keep the thermostat mentality. We knew we had to come out and bring everything toward them. Nothing was going to be given to us.”
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