Alcorn State falls just short in Celebration Bowl
Published 6:30 pm Saturday, December 15, 2018
ATLANTA (AP) — North Carolina A&T is accustomed to winning the Celebration Bowl, so the outcome wasn’t new when the Aggies beat Alcorn State 24-22 to capture their second straight HBCU national championship. They just took a different path this time.
Lamar Raynard threw for 292 yards and two first-half touchdowns Saturday, and it took Malik Wilson’s kickoff return for the game-deciding score on a day when North Carolina A&T’s running game was almost nonexistent even as the Aggies (10-2) won their third title in four years.
The Celebration Bowl kicked off the bowl season by matching up the champions of two historically black leagues, the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and the Southwestern Athletic Conference, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
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NCA&T had to hold off Alcorn State (9-4) while the Braves bullied the No. 2-ranked run defense in the FCS and twice nearly overcame a two-touchdown deficit by rushing for 328 yards, 258 in the second half.
“My palms got very sweaty,” first-year North Carolina A&T head coach Sam Washington said.
De’Shawn Waller gouged the Aggies for 167 yards and ripped off runs of 38, 48 and 54 yards in the second half, when quarterback Noah Johnson scored on runs of 30 and 59 yards.
When these teams met in the first Celebration Bowl, in 2015, the Aggies ran amok as Tarik Cohen, now of the Chicago Bears, rushed for 295 yards in a 41-34 victory.
On Saturday, North Carolina A&T ran for just 38 yards on 31 carries.
Raynard, a senior with a 35-2 record as a starter, did most of his damage in the first half. He threw touchdown passes of 17 yards to Zachary Leslie and 27 yards to Elijah Bell as NCA&T built a 17-3 lead in the second quarter. The 6-foot-3, 204-pound Leslie caught six passes for 119 yards.
“I just had to put it in the area,” Raynard, who completed 18 of 30 passes with an interception, said of the scoring pass to Leslie. “He’s a big body; he’s going to make plays.”
Alcorn State stormed back in the third quarter when Waller tallied 116 rushing yards on just four carries while playing about six miles east of where he grew up.
The Braves pulled within 17-16 on a 30-yard TD run by Johnson, the quarterback and SWAC Offensive Player of the Year, and a 29-yard field goal with 51 seconds left in the quarter. Johnson rushed for 120 yards and passed for 128.
“We came out with better effort in the second. The offensive line did what they had to do and I just followed the blocks in front of me,” Waller said. “The fan support was great. Whether we won or lost, the fans were still going to be by our side. I just tried to do whatever I could to make my parents proud, no matter what happened on the field.”
Wilson countered immediately, though, fielding the short kickoff on the left side of the field. He took off toward the middle and cut up the right sideline for a 79-yard score.
It was the senior’s school-record fourth kickoff return for a touchdown this season.
“I was happy they kicked to Malik,” Washington said.
Johnson scored on a 59-yard option keeper with 11:55 left in the game to draw the Braves within 24-22.
He rolled out on the ensuing two-point conversion try, and his pass to a sliding Chris Harris was ruled incomplete. The call was upheld after replay review.
“No (officials) said what the explanation was; they just said it was confirmed, that it was incomplete,” Alcorn State head coach Fred McNair said. “I can accept the kickoff return, but an explanation for why it wasn’t a catch I can’t.”
Alcorn got a defensive stop, but had to punt with six minutes remaining. It never got the ball back. North Carolina A&T converted two third downs on an 11-play drive that burned off the last 5:55.
The last drive was a low spot for an otherwise outstanding day for Alcorn’s defense.
“They’ve been a bend-but-don’t-break defense all year,” McNair said of his defense. “They gave up that first touchdown where we had some missed assignments, but they saw the mistakes that they made. After that, our defense played great, but credit NC A&T again.”