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, but they 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.
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 second quarter 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 rushed 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 with touchdown passes of 17 yards to Zachary Leslie and 27 yards to Elijah Bell and North Carolina A&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 touchdown 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.
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 alongside scores of 98, 99 and 100 yards.
“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, a call that 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 State punted on its next possession with 5:55 remaining and didn’t get the ball back.
North Carolina A&T: The Aggies were largely stymied on offense in the second half, with Wilson’s kickoff return bailing them out. Their first drive of the third quarter ended with an interception, and the second went 70 yards before a botched field goal try. Their last two drives, however, took more than 10 minutes off the clock.
Alcorn State: The Braves held the Aggies to just 127 yards of total offense in the second half, but their pass rush netted just one sack of Raynard after entering the game leading all FCS schools with 4.25 per game. They sacked him once in the first half, but Raynard still completed 12 of 20 passes for 192 yards, two scores and a big lead. He was not sacked on 10 attempts in the second half, completing all five of his passes in the fourth quarter.
North Carolina A&T’s 21-man senior class checks out with a 41-7 career record, breaking the school record for career wins set last season, three HBCU national championships and three MEAC titles. Thirteen of those players have graduated.
Alcorn State starting wide receiver Dayall Harris did not make the trip to Atlanta for disciplinary reasons. The senior was the Braves’ fourth-leading receiver with 28 catches in 11 games, with four touchdowns and a team-leading 15.8-yard average per reception.
North Carolina A&T: The Aggies will replace at least seven starters on defense and at least eight on offense, including Raynard and the entire line, before opening the 2019 season at home against Elon and then traveling 50 miles to play at Duke.
Alcorn State: The Braves will lose at least four defensive and three offensive starters ahead of their season-opening trip to Southern Mississippi, which will be followed by a game at McNeese State.
More AP college football: https://apnews.com/Collegefootball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25