South Carolina State has enjoyed some great moments in athletics throughout its 125-year history and where last Saturday’s stunning 31-10 triumph by the Bulldog football team over Jackson State in the 2021 Celebration Bowl ranks will be debated over the years.
But one thing is certain and that is that the Bulldogs’ thorough whipping of the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) Champion and Football Championship Subdivision-ranked Tigers is still lingering on the tongues of SC State supporters. In fact, Bulldog fans from throughout the land, including Yours Truly, are still in a celebratory mood that is sure not to wane for a while. In fact, the SC State victory over Coach Deion “Prime” Sanders and the Tigers is sure to be a hot topic at many of this year’s Christmas dinner tables.
For five years, SC State and Bulldog Nation lamented the fact that a trip to Atlanta and the Celebration Bowl -- which crowns the National Black Champion in football – eluded Coach Buddy Pough and his team.
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In three of those five seasons, the Bulldogs appeared on a path to the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference championship that would have earned SC State a berth in the Celebration Bowl, but an unexpected loss derailed the journey each time. SC State fans could only watch as league rivals North Carolina A&T (four appearances) and North Carolina Central (one trip) gained the prestigious berth.
Even I, who worked with the media coordination committee for the game the previous five years, updating scores and writing the postgame story, wandered when my beloved alma mater would make it to the Celebration Bowl.
Coach Buddy Pough, although he never shouted it from the mountaintop, was unhappy at not guiding his teams to Atlanta in the first five years of the game. Although he had opposed the origination of the game initially, pointing instead to the FCS playoffs – where his teams had made four appearances during his then-19-year tenure as Bulldog head coach -- and a chance to compete for a national title, he eventually became an avid supporter of the game and its benefit to the participating teams and the two conferences, the MEAC and SWAC.
After his turnabout, Pough wanted to reward his team, coaching staff and the SC State faithful with a trip to Atlanta and the game that officially opens the bowl season. And, this season, after a perfect 5-0 run in the MEAC and a 6-5 overall mark, the Bulldogs captured the league title outright and earned their first appearance in the coveted contest.
But just getting there – to Atlanta and the Celebration Bowl – would not be enough for Pough and his team. SC State had fallen 27-17 to North Carolina A&T in its final home game Nov. 13, denying SC State graduating seniors a victory in their last appearance before the home fans.
A trip to the Celebration Bowl, however, would remedy that and assuage the bitter taste of the loss to the Aggies. A win would put a bow on a Bulldog campaign that started 0-3, survived injuries to key players, while facing other ups and downs.
However, the obstacles became just bumps in the road for Pough, his staff and players, who gave true meaning to the word resilience. If the Bulldogs were to win the MEAC and earn a trip to the Celebration Bowl, they would have to survive road games at Delaware State, North Carolina Central and Norfolk State. Somehow, they did just that.
Pough’s team took an early lead against the Hornets at Dover, Delaware, and held on for a hard-fought 13-7 triumph, spoiling Del-State’s homecoming. In seesaw triumphs over the Eagles (27-24) at Durham, N.C., and the Spartans (31-21) at Norfolk, Va., the Bulldogs had to come from behind down the stretch to record the victory. In each of those wins, there were moments where SC State needed someone to step up and, showing Bulldog Tenacity, they did.
A home game against Howard was also a struggle, with the Bulldogs surviving 15-12. SC State’s 37-14 home win over Morgan State could go, perhaps, as the only MEAC breather for Pough’s team, although the game was hard-fought and close until late.
The tenacity and resilience showed by the Bulldogs throughout the season, were on full display in Atlanta Dec. 18 at the Celebration Bowl. A record crowd, including thousands of SC State supporters, was on hand. Media pundits and alumni from both schools had made their predictions. Players had jostled each other with trash talk, although in most cases, it was tempered. The stage was set.
In my appearance as a member of the media coordination committee for the Celebration Bowl the five previous years, I had few worries and no butterflies, but now that my beloved alma mater and longtime employer SC State would be taking the field against a team that featured the country’s top coach (Coach Sanders) and top freshman (Sanders’ son Shedeur) in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS), I was on edge and wondering if I could stay in the moment and carry out my duties as color analyst for the Bulldog Radio Network, alongside the incomparable Ernest Robinson.
I have to admit the task was difficult but, of course, as he had done throughout the season, Ernest made things easy. He’s a true professional and kept me “in the game.”
Some three hours after Jackson State quarterback Shedeur Sanders connected with wide receiver Keith Corbin III on a short scoring pass to give the Tigers an early 7-0 lead following the point-after-touchdown, and as the finals seconds ticked off the clock with the Bulldogs having secured a 31-10 victory, I went into “celebration” mode.
We had barely wrapped the radio broadcast when my cell phone began to light up, nonstop. Like those callers, I had witnessed one of the greatest triumphs in SC State football history and wanted to share the joy and glee.
Young men like quarterback Corey Fields, wide receiver Shaquan Davis (the game’s offensive MVP), defensive back Decobie Bryant (the defensive MVP), defensive linemen Jeblonski Green and Patrick Godbolt, linebacker BJ Davis, punter Dyson Roberts, and a youthful offensive line among others, had put on a performance that gave SC State one of its most memorable and historic triumphs in its long and storied football history.
They were aware of Bulldog greats, and in many cases, had met some of the players (Harry Carson, Donnie Shell, Deacon Jones, Marion Motley, Charlie Brown, Barney Chavous, Marvin Marshall, Michael Hicks, Will Ford, DeShawn Baker, and more recently Javon Hargrave and Darius Leonard) who had contributed to the great football lore at SC State. Their names would now be a part of the conversation.
When reflecting on this victory for years to come -- as I stated from the outset -- the debate will be where it ranks in Bulldog football history. A few other wins come to mind: Coach Willie Jeffries’ 31-27 triumph over Grambling and legendary Coach Eddie Robinson in the 1994 Heritage Bowl; Jeffries’ 16-7 victory over Delaware State in 1974 that gave SC State its first MEAC title and started one of the school’s most successful runs; Bill Davis’s 17-0 shutout over Furman in the first-round of the 1982 NCAA 1-AA playoffs; or the 58-52 double overtime victory over North Carolina A&T in 1993 behind five touchdowns by eventual Bulldog hall of fame running back Michael Hicks.
There have been many more great and significant victories on the gridiron for SC State and the Bulldogs, but for now, last Saturday’s 31-10 Celebration Bowl triumph over Jackson State reigns supreme in Bulldog Nation. Hats off to Coach Buddy Pough, his staff and players for a big, big Christmas present.
Bill Hamilton retired as sports information director at S.C. State after nearly four decades in the post. He is a member of the MEAC Hall of Fame and the recipient of numerous other honors for his service to the university and journalism. He reports on S.C. State as a correspondent for The Times and Democrat.