By Terrance Turner
Dec. 17, 2022
Bowl weekend continues as Jackson State faces North Carolina Central in the Cricket Celebration bowl. This HBCU showdown took place inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia. The game takes place against an interesting backdrop. This is Deion Sanders’ last game as Jackson State head coach.
Prime Time Exit
On Dec. 3, news broke that Sanders was taking a head coaching job at Colorado State. Sanders announced his decision the night of the regular season finale. On December 3rd, the night of the Tigers’ win over Southern, Sanders told his team he’d decided to leave. Sports Illustrated‘s Wilton Jackson reports that Sanders called a team meeting on campus following his team’s victory to break the news. And media members were told that Sanders would not be speaking with them on Saturday night.
The move was polarizing, drawing scrutiny of Sanders’ timing and the way he went about leaving. Much of the criticism centered around Sanders’ own rhetoric.
“I could be an assistant in any college, or a head coach in any college, but at such a time as this, God called me to Jackson State and me to these men,” Sanders said in 2020 when it was announced he’d be the new JSU head coach.
He portrayed coming to Jackson State as a divine invitation. “God brought me here to provoke change,” Sanders said in September about his coaching job at Jackson State, a historically Black college. The next month, in an interview with 60 Minutes, he added: “God called me collect, and I had to accept the charges.”
Sanders took the Jackson State job in 2020, just three months after the murder of George Floyd. He said the timing was no coincidence.
“It was relevant because a lot of folks sit back and talk about what they’re going to do,” Sanders said on the show. “I’m going to go do it.
“Do what?” the interviewer asked.
“I’m going to change lives. Change the perspective of HBCU football. Do what’s right by these kids.”
Sanders painted himself as a champion of HBCUs. So it was jarring to see him hop a flight the minute he got an offer from a Power 5 PWI. Sanders talked about changing the culture at HBCUs and creating a better playing field for them – but then left to take a coaching job at Colorado State in Boulder, Colorado — an area with a roughly 1% Black population.
The New York Times noted: ‘Sanders’s jump to a wealthy, white school after promising the world to his young Black athletes and their families is yet another reminder that Black people, in particular, have always had to take assurances with a healthy grain of skeptical apprehension — even when they come from people in our communities.”
Sanders led Jackson State to an undefeated season (12-0). But could he lead them to a championship against the NC Central Eagles?
North Carolina Central scored first with a 32 yard field goal by Olivo. They jumped out to a 10-0 lead after quarterback Davius Richard ran for a 4-yard touchdown.
But Jackson State responded when quarterback Shedeur Sanders threw to tight end DJ Stevens for a 24 yard touchdown.
The Eagles took over afterward. But the drive stalled, and they were forced to punt. Subsequently, the Tigers took possession.
As Jackson State began its drive, ABC commentators took note of a very famous face: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was in attendance at the game. As it turns out, his nephew Charlton Goodell plays for Jackson State.
Early in the second quarter, Jackson State took the lead when Sanders found a wide open Kevin Coleman, who ran untouched to the end zone for an 85 yard touchdown. The Tigers LED 14-10.
On 3rd down Richard took it himself and ran before sliding to a stop. As he slid, Jackson State defensive lineman Jason Mercier dove on top of him. Mercier got flagged for the late hit. That unnecessary roughness call advanced Jackson State 15 yards.
The refs threw a flag on the next play too, this time for holding on the offense. (Luke Bracey committed the hold.) But Central overcame those hurdles and moved down the field. EJ Hicks stayed on his feet as he took the ball into the red zone for 1st and goal. Then J’Mari Taylor broke though missed tackles and ran in for a 10-yard touchdown.
The Tigers caught a break when a fumble by Shane Hooks was overlooked. (The referees ruled him down.) And Jackson State launched its next play before their opponent had a chance to challenge or review. They continued their nine-play, 85 yard drive, helped along by their star quarterback.
Sanders threw off the defense with a pump fake and then took off running; he was finally brought down inside the 10. On 1st and goal, he handed the ball off to Savion Wilkerson, who picked up a couple yards. On 2nd and goal, Sanders took it himself, running to the end zone and colliding with a NC Central defender. Sanders knocked him down, attempted a stiff-arm, and stared down on the felled opponent before celebrating with his teammates.
Jackson State led 21-17 at the half.
The third quarter saw some clever gamesmanship by the Eagles. North Carolina Central fooled everyone on a fake punt, when tight end Kyle Morgan ran 43 yards and powered the team to first and goal. Then Quinton McCall made an acrobatic end-zone catch.
NC Central took the lead. But their kicker missed the extra point. The Eagles added a field goal later. And Jackson State’s touchdown made it 27-26.
When the Eagles’ drive got underway, Jackson State defense got flagged for pass interference. On the very next play, running back Latrell Collier was pursued by Travis Hunter, who lost his helmet on the play. Hunter retaliated by shoving Collier, and a minor scuffle broke out before referees broke it up. But the refs didn’t throw one flag.
The game continued. Flip got pulled down by his jersey but not before taking North Carolina Central to first and goal. Collier cut back and rushed in for the touchdown. Jackson State defensive end Jeremiah Brown was flagged for a flagrant personal foul and ejected from the game.
Central went for two. And E.J. Hicks came in at QB, tossing to Richard for the score.
Sanders managed to convert on the Tigers’ next drive, despite challenging circumstances. On 3rd and 4, Sanders got hit by the ball. He caught the snap just in time and made the throw for a first down. But his luck didn’t last.
On 2nd and 6, Sanders got sacked for a loss of 12. Now, on 3rd and 18 with just 1:20 remaining, Jackson State called a timeout. On 4th and 7, being chased by the defense, Sanders scrambled and made the pass. He found his receiver for the first down.
On second down, Sanders made what would have been a touchdown throw to wide receiver Travis Hunter. But Hunter couldn’t secure the ball, despite making three separate attempts on the play; it fell incomplete. On 3rd and 10, Sanders threw an incomplete pass.
It was 4th and 10. Desperation time. The Tigers had only one last shot after Hunter’s drop. But Hunter redeemed himself on the very next play. Incredibly, Sanders converted when he hurled the ball to Hunter – and this time, he made the catch!!! Touchdown Tigers.
Hunter’s incredible catch helped tie the game. The extra point kick was good, tying the game at 34. The Celebration Bowl went to overtime.
Overtime rules: There’s A coin toss for choice of offense, defense or place in the field. Each team gets one possession from the opponent’s 25 yard line. The call was heads. Jackson State won the toss. They elected to start with the defense.
North Carolina Central took the field and Collier took off, stiff-arming Tigers cornerback #7 and hurtling towards the goal line to make it first and goal.
Davius Richard powered his way right near the line on 2nd and goal. Then he bulled his way in for the touchdown.
Jackson State took over. Sanders made a first down completion to Dallas Daniels. The Tigers ran a rushing play on second down then Sanders threw on 3rd down to Stevens for first and goal. Running back Sy’vion Wilkerson bobbled the ball but made the catch; he nearly lost his balance and had to brace himself on one hand. He stayed on his feet and picked up an extra two yards. Then Wilkerson ran near the goal line but was stopped just short. On third and goal, Sanders made a quick toss to Hayden Hagler, who dropped the ball.
After Hagler dropped what could have been a touchdown pass, it was fourth and goal. Could Shedeur Sanders help seal his father’s legacy with another miracle play?
No. Sanders scrambled to make a throw on 4th down, but the ball sailed over the head of his intended receiver.
North Carolina Central won, 41-34.