By Lut Williams
Black College Sports Page / Onnidan Special
ATLANTA, GA – New North Carolina A&T head coach Sam Washington had all but guaranteed that Alcorn State would not run for the 282 yards it averaged heading into Saturday’s Celebration Bowl here at Mercedes Benz Stadium.
While that prediction didn’t quite come true, his team did, getting a key kickoff return touchdown in the fourth quarter that allowed them to hold on for a hard-fought and drama-filled 24-22 win over Alcorn State.
It was the Mid Eastern Athletic Conference champion Aggies (10-2) third victory in the four-year history of the bowl game that matches the MEAC and Southwestern Athletic Conference champions. But it was the first for Washington, the former defensive coordinator who took over from longtime coach Rod Broadway upon his mentor’s retirement last year.
“That (Alcorn State) is an excellent team and we’re very fortunate to get out of here with a victory,” said Washington whose Aggies came in ranked second behind top-ranked Alcorn State in most black college football polls.
The win also gives the Aggies their third black college national championship in four years.
A&T senior quarterback Lamar Raynard threw two touchdown passes in the first half covering 17 yards to Zachary Leslie on the game’s opening drive and 27 yards to Elijah Bell with just under a minute left in the first half to help stake the Aggies to a 17-6 halftime lead. Sandwiched between those scores was a 36-yard field goal from A&T placekicker Noel Ruiz following an interception that opened the second-quarter scoring.
Menwhile, Alcorn State could muster just two first-half field goals by Corey McCullough, one in each quarter. His first covered 29 yards to cut the Aggies lead to 7-3 and his second came from 25 yards out at the halftime buzzer.
But it was a different game in the second half as the vaunted Alcorn State running attack piled up 258 of its 328 rushing yards to make it a game. The fact that they did against the Aggies, who came in giving up an FCS-best 72.6 rushing yards per game, explains why the game came down to the final minute.
“Don’t tell me that,” said Washington of the total against his defense that prides itself on stopping the run. It is the highest total any team has run for against the Aggies this season.
Alcorn State juniors, quarterback Noah Johnson and DeShawn Waller, did most of the damage. Johnson, who finished with 120 yards on 14 carries, started the comeback when he scored from 30 yards out at the end of a four-play, 86-yard drive that pulled the Braves to within 17-13 with 4:29 left in the third quarter. The score came just one play after Waller ran for 45 yards up the middle to advance the ball into A&T territory.
Waller, who finished with 167 yards on 19 carries, was at it again on the Braves’ next possession, this time going 54 yards on literally the same play up the gut before running out of bounds at the A&T 8-yard line. The drive stalled there and the Braves settled for a 29-yard McCullough field goal to pull within 17-16 with :51 seconds left in the period.
But that’s when lightning struck for the Aggies as Malik Wilson brought the ensuing kickoff back 79 yards to paydirt, his school-record fourth return TD on the season to put his team up 24-16 with 38 ticks left on the third quarter clock.
“He (Wilson) has done that time and again for us this season,” said Washington. “It seems when we’re down in the dumps, he comes through and gets us right back on track.”
The Braves were not through, however. Starting from their own 8-yard line with just seconds left in the third quarter, they drove 92 yards in nine plays with Johnson keeping over the right side to cover the final 59 yards to get the Braves within 24-22 with 11:55 left in the final period.
Alcorn State head coach Fred McNair decided to go for a two-point conversion and a tie. On the play, Johnson rolled right and seemed to hit wideout Chris Blair in the back corner of the end zone. The side judge ruled the pass incomplete though Blair appeared to hold on to the ball as he was sliding out the back right side. The Alcorn State sideline and their fans in the stands erupted when the replay was shown obviously thinking the catch was made. After an official review, the ruling of an incomplete pass was upheld.
“I never got an explanation,” said McNair of the ruling. “We all thought he held on to the ball.”
The teams exchanged punts before A&T got the ball back with 5:55 left. The Aggies converted two third downs and faced a critical third-and-11 with just over 65 ticks left. Raynard dropped back and threw a perfect pass on a slant to wideout Isaiah Hicklin who brought it in at the Alcorn 22-yard line for the first down. The Aggies only had to run two more plays to run out the clock.
Raynard took home the Aggies’ offensive MVP award as he completed 18 of 30 passes for a season-high 290 yards and the two scores. He threw one interception. Leslie led the receivers with six catches for 119 yards and the one score. The Aggie running attack was held to a net of 38 yards on 21 carries. Free safety Richie Kittles was the Aggies defensive MVP with nine tackles, four for losses.
Johnson was 11 of 27 passing for 128 yards and was picked off once by A&T senior Timadre Abrams. The pick led to Ruiz’s field goal.