All season long, no team has been able to stay with Jackson State on the gridiron. The Tigers offensive production has been off the charts in many categories and JSU was, not by coincidence, undefeated. That was all until Saturday afternoon, at least, until Deion Sanders’ team ran into MEAC champion NC Central. The last thing Coach Prime had to accomplish before leaving for Colorado was to hoist a Celebration Bowl trophy. The Eagles had other plans for his sendoff party, though, and rose to the occasion knocking off the Tigers in stunning fashion.
It was NC Central that delivered the first blow. On their opening drive, quarterback Davius Richard led his offense down the field and got the first points of the afternoon with a 32-yard field goal from Adrian Olivo. After the Eagles defense forced a punt, Richard did it again but this time it ended in a four-yard touchdown run from the signal-caller. Seven minutes into the game, NC Central led 10-0.
Jackson State got a bit of a spark on their second drive when Shedeur Sanders was hit late out of bounds after a run and the Eagles were flagged for a personal foul. The play put the Tigers onto NC Central’s side of the field and from there the JSU offense took over. Sanders threaded a pass over the middle to tight end DJ Stevens for a 24-yard touchdown get on the board.
The Eagles defense responded well to the early adversity and forced a big fumble when JaJuan Hudson knocked the ball free from Travis Hunter. Manny Smith fell on it and set the NC Central offense at the JSU 32-yard line. Richard and his unit, though, were held scoreless on the drive and had to punt away. When the opening quarter came to a close Jackson State trailed 10-7.
The Tigers got their first lead of the day early in the second when Sanders hit receiver Kevin Coleman Jr. in stride and he took it 85 yards to the house. The explosive play was Coleman’s third touchdown of the season and Sanders’ 38th passing of the season.
On the ensuing NC Central drive, it was the Eagles who were benefited from a personal foul penalty. As Richard was sliding after a run, lineman Jason Mercier drug him down resulting in an added 15 yards. Shortly after, it was running back J’mari Taylor that made the JSU defense pay for the mistake with a 10-yard touchdown scamper up the middle. Defensive lineman Aubrey Miller Jr. missed the tackle as Taylor danced into the end zone putting NC Central back up 17-14.
Sanders guided the Tigers offense down to the red zone with under a minute to play until halftime. From the seven-yard line, he performed a beautiful spin move to evade defenders and bolted over the goal line for his sixth rushing touchdown of the season. At the break JSU led 21-17.
Early in the third quarter NC Central executed a fake punt to keep their series alive on fourth down at their own 33-yard line. Tight end Kyle Morgan rumbled 43 yards and reinvigorated the Eagles. Richard made the most of the second opportunity by finding Quentin McCall in the end zone for a 12-yard dart. McCall’s fourth touchdown of the season stole the lead back but Olivo missed the PAT.
As the fourth frame started, NC Central held on to a 26-21 edge thanks to another Olive field goal but Jackson State was set up well thanks to a good kick return by Coleman. Sanders got his team into the red zone once again but on second down from the three-yard line Deontrae Brown broke through and delivered a huge sack, dragging Sanders back for a loss of 15 yards. It hardly mattered, though, as Sanders connected with Hunter over the middle for the wide open score. The two-point try failed but JSU still was on top again 27-26 with 11:25 to go.
As had been the case for much of the day, a flag helped keep the drive going on the Eagles’ next possession. On third down, Richard lofted a ball intended for receiver Devin Smith but could not hit him. Defensive back Shiloh Sanders, however, grabbed Smith before the ball arrived and was flagged for pass interference.
Running back Latrell Collier continued to pound the rock up the middle and got NC Central into striking distance with under five minutes to play. Collier picked up his first touchdown of the day with a seven-yard run. The back-and-forth game continued with the Eagles swinging the advantage back their way with the TD run. Richard himself hauled in the two-point try to make it a full touchdown lead with 4:31 remaining.
Sanders and JSU needed a response. They began pushing the ball and got out past midfield but again NC Central came up with a huge sack. Colby Warrior and Jessie Malit buried Sanders for a loss of 12 and set up a difficult 3rd and 18 with 1:20 on the clock. Sanders got the ball out to Shane Hooks to make it 4th and 7 but with time winding down it was make-or-break for the Tigers.
Sanders, under duress, jetted a pass to JD Martin who made a spectacular catch to keep the drive alive. Coleman followed the dramatic snag with one of his own on the sideline to get the ball down to the NC Central 19-yard line where Sanders clocked it with it with 24 seconds left.
The Eagles defense again forced fourth down and with only seven seconds on the board, it all came down to one play. Sanders took the snap and aired the ball up toward the corner of the end zone where Hunter, in front of a raucous crowd, hauled in the pass with a man draped all over him. The clock hit zeroes as JSU tied it 24-24 on the miraculous play and Hunter showed everyone why he was the nation’s #1 recruit a year ago. Overtime loomed in Atlanta for the first time in Celebration Bowl history.
SHEDEUR SANDERS TO TRAVIS HUNTER AT THE DEATH!!!— Barstool Sports (@barstoolsports) December 17, 2022
JACKSON ST’S NOT DONE YET
Jackson State won the coin toss and elected to send their defense out first. Trei Oliver’s Eagles, with the ball in their hands, needed a mental boost and they got it when Collier delivered a big stiff arm against Cam’Ron Silmon-Craig and juiced up the NC Central crowd. Two plays later, Richard leaned in for the go-ahead touchdown to make it 41-34. Once again, JSU’s season would come down to a do-or-die possession.
NC Central’s defense allowed Sanders to get the ball down to the one-yard line but then tightened up to force another fourth down and this time it didn’t work out for the Tigers. Sanders rolled back after the snap but couldn’t find anyone in the end zone as the ball bounced off the turf. The Eagles rejoiced as JSU’s players walked off the field dejected.
Oliver and his team have picked up several noteworthy wins this year but none more so than the Celebration Bowl victory over JSU. Finishing their season at 10-2 overall, Eagles are the 2022 HBCU national champions and it’s thanks in large part to their stellar offense.
Richard, the MEAC Offensive Player of the Year, led the way completing 15-of-20 passes for 175 yards and touchdowns. On the ground he put up 94 more yards with Collier right behind him with 79. The defense forced a turnover and held Jackson State to just 64 total rushing yards. The usually-dominant Sy’veon Wilkerson came out with a mere 48 yards on 17 carries.
The Tigers will not be unbeaten this year as they fall to 12-1 and lose the Celebration Bowl for the second consecutive year. For all that coach Deion Sanders has accomplished with JSU, he never did hoist the HBCU trophy. The question remaining now is how many of his current players will follow him to Colorado?
While questions loom at JSU, the celebration is on for NC Central. The MEAC is now 6-1 all time in the Celebration Bowl and the Eagles now have their first win the game.