PASADENA, Calif. -- Behind a comeback effort led by Southeastern Louisiana quarterback Cole Kelley, the National team rallied from a 14-point deficit to defeat the American team, 25-24, on Saturday in the 10th annual NFLPA Collegiate Bowl. The all-star game featured more than 100 prospects for the 2022 NFL Draft and a matchup between former NFL head coaches Marvin Lewis (National) and Jeff Fisher (American) at the Rose Bowl. Here are five takeaways from the game.
1) Kelley steps up after stepping in. After watching the National squad's first two drives end via an interception and a punt, Kelley stepped in to spark the offense on his way to earning game MVP honors. He completed 9-of-13 passes for 68 yards during a 19-play drive that ate up 9:04 of game time and ended with a field goal heading into halftime. Following a fumble recovery by the National team late in the third quarter, Kelley found Arkansas tight end Blake Kern on a completion that turned into a 47-yard score. In the fourth quarter, with his team down by seven, Kelley orchestrated a seven-play, 75-yard drive that was capped off by Coastal Carolina RB Shermari Jones' five-yard touchdown trudge. Lewis elected to go for two and Kelley, looking as comfortable as he had all night, found Indiana TE Peyton Hendershot for what turned out to be the game-winning points. Kelley's final stat line read 12-of-17 for 150 yards and a score.
2) Dixon, Ezzard matchup nightmares in the making? Dai'Jean Dixon and Jequez Ezzard's American team might have come up short on Saturday, but the receiver tandem made their big-play potential known throughout the contest. Dixon, a three-time first-team All-Southland selection at Nicholls State, finished with a game-high 131 yards and a touchdown catch on six receptions, including a 47-yarder that helped set up a field goal. His 11-yard TD grab in the second quarter served as the perfect snapshot of Dixon's steady hands and toughness. As for Ezzard, a dangerous combination of speed and balance made the Sam Houston State wideout a tough cover on both offense and special teams. With 41 receiving yards, a TD catch and 42 return yards to his name, it's no wonder Ezzard was named first-team All-WAC as a receiver and returner in 2021.
3) QB platoon nearly paces American team to win. Cal QB Chase Garbers earned top billing coming into Saturday's game, but Alabama A&M's Aqeel Glass made sure scouts recognized his name and game by the end of the night. Garbers quickly made up for a lost fumble by TE Jake Tonges -- his fellow Cal alum -- on the game's opening series with a 14-play, 75-yard TD drive to get the American squad on the board first. Glass would follow that with a six-play, 68-yard scoring drive of his own on the team's next possession. Both QBs displayed solid pocket awareness and nice touch despite having to rotate in and out of the lineup. Glass, the two-time SWAC and HBCU Offensive Player of the Year, finished 9 of 11 for 141 yards while Garbers finished 10 of 13 for 119 yards, to go with two rushes for 25 yards.
4) Timely takeaway. An early 14-0 hole had the National defense on its heels, but credit Rod Woodson's bunch -- yes, the Hall of Fame defensive back served as Lewis' defensive coordinator at the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl -- for regrouping in the second half. The defense's signature moment came near the end of the third quarter, when Ole Miss defensive end Sam Williams forced a fumble by Toledo RB Bryant Koback, which was recovered by Miami linebacker Zach McCloud. The play paved the way for the aforementioned Kelley-to-Kern TD connection. Both McCloud and Williams made their presence known on a number of run stuffs and tackles for loss, but this game might have turned out much differently if not for the turnover.
5) Closing kick. With the American team trailing by a point on the game's final possession, Glass and Co. darted their way down the field in the final four minutes to get within field goal range, setting the stage for Illinois' James McCourt to attempt a would-be game-winning field goal. McCourt, who nailed a 24-yarder earlier in the night, needed to convert from nearly double that distance (46 yards) to leave the hero. Unfortunately for the third-team All-Big Ten selection, his attempt sailed wide left, resulting in a devastating finish for Fisher's team and a narrow victory for Lewis' squad.