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N.C. A&T holds on to win 2nd straight Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl title

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ncat01ATLANTA — For North Carolina A&T and Alcorn State, the second meeting between the two teams in the Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl came down to a two-point conversion catch that wasn’t a catch.

After being completely outplayed in the first half, the Braves pulled to within two points in the final quarter and went for a 2-point conversion that would have tied the game. But while wide receiver Chris Blair caught the 2-point conversion pass from Alcorn State quarterback Noah Johnson, he juggled the ball slightly as he was tackled out of bounds. That crucial sequence allowed North Carolina A&T to escape with a 24-22 victory for it’s second straight Celebration Bowl title, and the third in four years for the champions of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC).

The Aggies won behind the passing of quarterback Lamar Raynard, (18 completions in 30 attempts for 292 yards and two touchdowns) and the legs of kickoff return specialist Malik Wilson, who had a 79-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the third quarter.

That helped offset the late-game heroics from Noah Johnson, who rushed for 127 yards and two touchdowns— both of those touchdowns coming in the second half.

It was the second time in four years that the North Carolina A&T and Alcorn State had faced each other in the HBCU national championship game, as the Braves looking to avenge their 41-34 loss in the inaugural Celebration Bowl in 2015.

The key for Alcorn State to have any chance of victory and the second win by a SWAC team in the Celebration Bowl: finding a way to contain Darryl Johnson, a terror at defensive end who led the MEAC with 10.5 sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss on his way to being named the MEAC Defensive Player of the Year.

But the Braves boasted a defensive unit that led all FCS teams in sacks per game (4.25) and tackles for loss per game (9.3). Alcorn State didn’t allow its opponent to score a touchdown in three games this season.

Alcorn State trailed 17-6, entering the second half but scored on back-to-back third-quarter scoring drives. The first drive, a 30-yard-touchdown run by Johnson, cut the N.C. A&T lead to 17-13 with 1:08 left in the third quarter.

After a strong defensive stand by the Braves, Corey McCullough kicked a 29-yard-field goal to pull the Braves within 17-16, which put the Alcorn faithful in a frenzy.

But even as the Alcorn State band and fans were dancing in their seats, the momentum shifted back into the Aggies direction as Wilson ran back that 79-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, a Celebration Bowl record that increased North Carolina A&T’s lead to 24-16. It was the fourth kickoff return for a touchdown this season for Wilson, who had a 99-yard kickoff return against Norfolk State in November.

Alcorn State would not quit, starting the fourth quarter with a 92-yard drive that ended with Johnson scoring on another long touchdown run—this time from 59-yards—that pulled the Braves within two points, 24-22.

That led to the most crucial moment of the game, as Alcorn State opted to go for that two-point conversion and the tie.

Johnson rolled out right and connected with wide receiver Blair in the corner of the end zone, and even as replays showed he caught the ball the officials immediately ruled no reception. Under review, it was clear that Blair—while having a foot in bounds—slightly juggled the ball as he was knocked out of bounds. Even though he continued through to catch the ball, that slight juggle was costly.

The competitive second half was a far cry from what played out in the first half, when the Aggies appeared to blow the game open early.

Attacking early out of their no-huddle offense, they impressively drove the field on their first possession with Raynard finding Zachary Leslie over the middle with a 17-yard scoring pass that helped North Carolina less than three minutes into the game. Setting up the touchdown was a 45-yard pass from Raynard to his long-time friend and teammate, Marquell Cartwright.

From there, the Alcorn State defense did a better job of putting pressure on Raynard and containing Cartwright, the big-time rusher for the Aggies who finished the game with 12 rushes for 4 yards.

While the defense was solid the Braves, offensively they could not capitalize. Johnson, the SWAC Offensive Player of the Year and a finalist for the Walter Payton Award (for the best offensive player at at FCS school), has been a dual-threat the entire season but never got untracked in the first half as he faced an intense pass rush. Many of Johnson’s throws were hurried and thrown in traffic, which led to an interception deep in Alcorn State territory.

The Aggies appeared to get untracked offensively in its last possession of the first half, driving 70 yards in six plays that resulted in a 27-yard touchdown pass from Raynard to a wide open Elijah Bell that increased the Aggies lead to 17-3 with 53 seconds left. For Bell, a junior, it was the 25th career touchdown of his career which tied a school record.

Just when it appeared Alcorn State was on the verge of being overwhelmed, the Braves drove 67 yards in their last possession of the half to the North Carolina A&T 7 yard line. But the Braves simply ran out of time, and had to settle for a field goal to go into the locker room trailing 17-6. Even with the second half comeback, the Braves never led in the game.

For North Carolina A&T, the championship win came in a season where first year coach Sam Washington was able to keep the school’s winning tradition on track.

The Aggies began their season with wins over Jacksonville State and East Carolina, but also suffered a shocking early-season loss to Morgan State.

North Carolina A&T won its last five games to finish with a 10-2 record.

Alcorn State, making its first Celebration Bowl appearance since that meeting against the Aggies in 2015, ended its season with a 9-4 record.