A&T Wins Third Celebration Bowl In Four Years
ATLANTA –The North Carolina A&T Aggies captured its third Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl title in four years with a 24-22 win over Alcorn State on Saturday afternoon at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. It was N.C. A&T’s second straight HBCU national title and their sixth overall. The senior class will go down as historic. They closed out their careers with a 41-7 record, three Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference titles, three national titles and three wins over FBS schools.
The Aggies led the entire game, but it was Malik Wilson’s 79-yard game winning kickoff return with 38 seconds left in the third quarter that gave N.C. A&T a 24-16 lead after the Braves rallied from a 17-3 first-half deficit before cutting the Aggies lead to 17-16 in the third quarter 17-16 on a 29-yard field from Corey McCullough. It was Wilson’s fourth return for a touchdown this season to break Justin Ferrell’s 2010 school record. It was his third timely kickoff return of the season. In the season opener against No. 6 Jacksonville State, after JSU took its first lead of the game, Wilson returned the ensuing kickoff 98 yards to give the Aggies the lead back in the third quarter. After Norfolk State cut the Aggies lead to 21-20 on Nov. 3, Wilson put the game away with a 99-yard kickoff return. Then there was Saturday.
“We all saw the score, it was clutch,” said Wilson about his return. “That kick return was really big. I thank God for putting in the situation to make the play and William Hollingsworth and Terrence Peterson in particular. They had great kick out blocks that sealed the edge and gave me a big lane to run through. I thought I was going to have to run another one back after that long run by Alcorn’s running back.”
Alcorn (8-4) didn’t take long to respond and capped a drive of nine plays under four minutes with a 59-yard touchdown run by Noah Johnson at the 11:55 mark cutting N.C. A&T’s lead to 24-22. The Braves attempted a two-point conversion that would have tied the game. But Johnson’s pass to Chris Blair in the end zone for the two-point conversion was ruled incomplete because Blair did not have control of the football as he landed out of bounds. It was a huge play in the game.
What was also big was the Aggies next two fourth-quarter drives. They didn’t score on either, but they combined to gobble a little more than 10 minutes off the clock between the two drives to keep hold to their slim lead. In between those drives, the Aggies defense held the Braves to a 5-play, 12-yard drive. On the Aggies final drive of the game, senior quarterback Lamar Raynard(High Point Andrews High School) completed two passes to move the chains for first downs including a 3rd-and-8 completion from the Alcorn 36-yard line that gave the Aggies the game-winning first down at the Alcorn 22 with 47 seconds remaining. With no timeouts for the Braves, it was game over.
N.C. A&T, who came into the game with the No. 2 run defense in the nation, surprisingly gave up 328 yards rushing. De’Shawn Waller had 167 yards rushing on 19 carries and Johnson finished with 120 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries.
“We got our eyes in the wrong place and they popped us for two big ones,” said N.C. A&T head coach Sam Washington about Alcorn’s runs of 59 and 54 yards in the second half. “That’s something we do not do. We do not give up long runs. Today we gave up two big ones. And that just threw us out of sync. But we got them off the field when we needed to in that fourth quarter. If we didn’t stop them on that drive with only a two-point lead then we were in for a tough situation.”
N.C. A&T set the tone early in the game and held a comfortable 17-6 advantage at the half. Raynard(High Point Andrews High School) threw a 17-yard pass to sophomore Zachary Leslie in the opening drive of the game to give the Aggies a 7-0 lead with 12:38 in the first quarter. Alcorn cut in A&T’s lead with a 29-yard field goal by McCullough with less than three minutes in the first.
Noel Ruiz nailed a 36-yard field goal at the 8:33 mark in the second quarter which stretched A&T’s lead to 10-3. With 53 seconds remaining in the half, Raynard connected with Elijah Bell on a 27-yard pass pushing the Aggies to a 17-3 lead. Bell’s TD reception tied Denzel Keyes’ school record for career touchdown receptions at 25. The Braves used a 25-yard field goal by McCullough as time expired in the second quarter cutting A&T’s advantage to 17-6.
Raynard(High Point Andrews High School) was impressive in the win and was 18-of-30 passing for 292 yards and two touchdowns. He was named the game’s offensive MVP. Leslie caught six passes and finished with 119 yards and a touchdown. Defensively, junior free safety Richie Kittles finished with nine tackles with four tackles for loss and was named the game’s defensive MVP.
The Aggies finished the season with a 10-2 record. Washington became the first Aggie coach to capture a national title in his first season as head coach. He also tied George Small for the most wins (10) by a first-year Aggies head coach. Washington had the better winning percentage at .833 to Small’s .769.
N.C. A&T will lose their incredible 22-man senior class. But they will return Leslie and Bell who had 50 and 48 receptions respectively this season. Bell has a chance to become the Aggies all-time leading receiver in yards and receptions next season. Third-team All-MEAC back Jah-Maine Martin is also scheduled to return after rushing for 656 yards and seven touchdowns on 98 carries as Marquell Cartwright’s backup. Two starters return on the offensive line including two-time All-MEAC performer Marcus Pettiford. Kylil Carter, a player with a tremendous amount of experience despite backing up Raynard for three years, is expected to take over as the Aggies starting quarterback.
Defensively, the Aggies are expected to get back MEAC defensive player of the year in defensive Darryl Johnson. They will lose three other starters along the defensive line. Antoine Wilder will be the lone starting linebacker returning and All-MEAC corner Mac McCain III(Dudley HS) along with Amir McNeil and Kittles will look to lead the Aggies in the secondary.
“We had the time of our lives in Atlanta this week,” said Washington. “And I would love for you to have us back next year.”