It was supposed to be a celebration for the Jackson State football team and its dominance in HBCU football this season. After all, they boasted the FCS (Football Championship Subdivision) National Coach of the Year in Deion “Coach Prime” Sanders, the national freshman of the year in Shadeur Sanders and they came in riding a nine-game win streak to boot.
South Carolina State, on the other hand, was given little or no chance coming into the contest after winning the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and posting a 6-5 record.
But like they say, “the game is played on the field, not in the media or among fans.”
And South Carolina State and their veteran coach, Oliver “Buddy” Pough, proved just that, silencing the prognosticators with a convincing 31-10 win over the Tigers in the Cricket Celebration Bowl at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium before almost 50,000 and a nationally-televised audience.
It did not appear that way early on when Jackson State (11-2) scored on its second possession to take a 7-0 lead. Given how the nationally-ranked Tigers defense had played all season, it was a safe bet that the Bulldogs (7-5), who relied on their stout defense much of the season would be unable to score. Their first four possessions resulted in three-and-outs as they never crossed midfield.
But Jackson State’s offense had problems of its own and were bogged down following the early score. Sanders, the son of Coach Prime, was rendered ineffective as the Bulldogs defense hounded him into errant throws while the running game never materialized. SC State held Jackson State to 19 yards rushing for the game.
The resilience of the Bulldogs paid off late in the second quarter when they forced a fumble by Sanders that gave them possession deep into Jackson State territory. SC State’s Shaquan Davis, a 6-5 sophomore wide receiver, made them pay as he and junior quarterback Corey Fields, Jr. hooked up for a six-yard TD with a little over two minutes before halftime to tie the score.
The discombobulated Tiger offense turned it over again on their ensuing possession to give SC State a short field that resulted in a 26-yard field goal that helped them take a 10-7 at intermission and provided momentum.
“They kind of stopped what we wanted to do on offense,” said Pough in his 19th season with the Bulldogs. “We thought if our defense could keep them out of the end zone and force them into long drives with our kicking game get a short field, we would have a chance. That series of plays just before the half were big.”
Following another JSU interception, it took the Bulldogs three plays for Davis to again connect with Fields, this time from 16 yards to increase the margin to 17-7.
“We always count on our defense a lot,” said Davis, who was named game MVP after catching five passes, three of which went for TDs. “When they make plays, it gives us a short field and that allows us to punch it in quicker instead of having to drive the whole field. They were a huge part of this win.”
Less than four minutes later, the Bulldogs struck again, this time from Fields, who threw for four touchdowns, to Richard Bailey from 16 yards to increase the deficit to 24-7.
Facing a sense of urgency, the Tigers managed a 36-yard field goal from Raborn Bailey near the end of the third quarter to cut the deficit to 24-10.
But the Bulldogs were not to be denied on this day. SC State would close out the scoring and post its first-ever Celebration Bowl title.
“I have been trying to get to this thing for 10 years,” said Pough, in his 19th season as at the helm in Orangeburg.
“When you have been around the game for 40 years, they pretty much all run together. But I can tell you this one ranks up there,” he said.
As for Jackson State, the loss does not tarnish what it accomplished, especially the attention it brought to all HBCUs under Coach Prime.
“They flat-out kicked our butts,” said Sanders. “Congratulations to South Carolina State for an incredible win in the Celebration Bowl. We will learn from this and prayerfully return next year.”