5 observations from the Celebration Bowl

A new college football tradition kicked off in Atlanta on Saturday, with a thrilling bowl game featuring a slew of big plays, a few tricks and a diminutive running back who added to his already viral highlight package.

North Carolina A&T running back Tarik Cohen rushed for 295 yards and scored three touchdowns, and the Aggies’ defense made a stand in the final seconds to secure a 41-34 victory over Alcorn State on Saturday afternoon in the inaugural Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl at the Georgia Dome.

Here are five observations from the game:

One-man highlight reel. Cohen, a 5-foot-6, 173-pound junior dynamo, garnered national attention this summer when a video of him catching a football while doing a back flip went viral and landed him on ESPN’s “SportsCenter.” He showed off that athletic ability Saturday, scoring on touchdown runs of 83, 74 and 73 yards.

“We’ve said all along that Tarik is special,” North Carolina A&T coach Rod Broadway said. “The nation got to see him perform today. He had a big game for us, and we needed it.”

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The two-time Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Year also set up a fourth-quarter touchdown with a dazzling, tackle-breaking 52-yard catch and run on a screen pass.

“We haven’t seen too many backs like him,” Alcorn State defensive back Warren Gatewood said of Cohen.

Big-play special teams. North Carolina A&T’s Khris Gardin returned the first punt of the game 74 yards for a touchdown and became the all-time FCS leader in punt-return yardage. He also set the tone for a game that featured multiple big plays on special teams by both teams.

Three minutes after Gardin’s return, Alcorn State answered with an 84-yard punt return for a touchdown by Anthony Williams Jr.

Gatewood blocked a 27-yard field-goal attempt to keep the Braves within one score, at 27-20, heading into the fourth quarter.

Alcorn State used some special-teams trickery to tie the game, when senior holder Brian Vessell hit tight end Brandon Campbell for touchdown with 5:10 to play.

Shut-down defense. Alcorn State entered the game ranked No. 3 in the FCS in rushing, averaging 309.2 yards on the ground per game. North Carolina A&T’s defense, ranked second against the run, was up to the task. The Aggies held Alcorn State to season-low 104 yards rushing on 32 carries.

“When our big guys in the middle (defensive tackles Michael Neal and Marquis Ragland) are playing well, we’re hard to run against,” Broadway said.

Good turnout. The announced attendance of 35,528 was pretty evenly divided, with maybe slightly more purple-and-gold clad Alcorn State fans than those wearing the blue and yellow of North Carolina A&T. Regardless, both coaches praised their fans’ support and the overall bowl experience.

“We gave the TV audience a pretty good show,” Alcorn State coach Jay Hopson said. “They ought to be pretty happy with the Celebration Bowl. Our fans show up, they travel. We have the best fans in the world.”

Added Broadway, “It was a beautiful week for our kids. I’m just excited for them to have the opportunity to go to the (Civil Rights) museum, the (Georgia) aquarium, the College Football Hall of Fame. I know our team enjoyed ourselves, and I think the fans enjoyed it. It was a heckuva football game.”

The future of the Celebration Bowl. The Celebration Bowl expects to tee it up in Mercedes-Benz Stadium in 2017.

“It is in our full intent, because of our relationship with the Atlanta Falcons as a partner with this bowl game, to be in Mercedes-Benz Stadium in 2017,” bowl executive director John T. Grant told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution during Saturday’s game.

Grant said the bowl has been in discussions with the Falcons, but a deal has not been finalized yet. Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the future home of the Falcons, will open in time for the 2017 NFL season. The Georgia Dome will be torn down during the first half of 2017.

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