Aggies go for back to back national titlesBy Semaj Marsh, Peacemaker Sports / December 14, 2018
The journey has been long and often unpredictable, but A&T’s quest to defend its 2017 HBCU national title finally culminates this weekend with a season-ending showdown against a familiar foe.
Alcorn State, who the Aggies defeated in the inaugural Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl back in 2015, has again emerged as the king of the Southwestern Athletic Conference after outlasting Southern in the SWAC Championship Game on December 1.
That set the stage for a Celebration Bowl rematch between the 9-2 Aggies and the 9-3 Braves this Saturday at 12 noon. The game will take place at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in downtown Atlanta and air live on ABC.
“This was a roller coaster season for us,” admitted A&T head coach Sam Washington, who will be looking to earn the school’s third Celebration Bowl victory in four years. “We started out the gate with a bang, faltered a little bit midway for whatever reason, and then we were able to get it back on track. But it’s like I always tell the players: it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.”
A lot has changed since the 2015 encounter between these two schools – a wild contest that A&T won 41-34. Both programs, however, still boast talented rosters stocked with playmakers on both sides of the ball.
Legendary A&T running back Tarik Cohen, who was named MVP of the 2015 game after rushing for 295 yards and three touchdowns, is currently producing similar highlights on Sundays for the Chicago Bears. Now, the Aggies’ ground attack features the backfield duo of senior Marquell Cartwright (1,002 rushing yards; seven touchdowns) and Coastal Carolina transfer Jah-Maine Martin (644 rushing yards; seven touchdowns). Their combination of speed and power helped A&T average nearly 200 rushing yards per contest.
The A&T passing game is also more potent than the one the Braves faced in 2015.
Behind center, A&T senior quarterback Lamar Raynard rebounded from an early-season slump to once again perform at an elite level, throwing for 1630 yards, 18 touchdowns and just five interceptions. He benefits from having perhaps the deepest collection of wide receiver talent in school history, led by first team All-MEAC wide-out Elijah Bell, 6-foot-4 sophomore Zach Leslie and speed demon Malik Wilson.
The unit has adopted the nickname “Flight Club” this season, but don’t expect Alcorn State’s defensive backs to surrender the air space inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium without a fight.
Braves have a host of rangy, athletic defensive backs who are long and athletic. Starting corners Javen Morrison and Qwynnterrio Cole were both named first team All-SWAC and each recorded three interceptions this year. Alcorn finished second in the SWAC with 13 total interceptions.
Still, Washington is confident his team can find success through the air on Saturday.
“We have a quarterback who can throw the football, period. I don’t care who he is playing against,” said Washington. “We’re going to chunk it (against Alcorn) because that’s what we do. We’ll try to mix the run and pass up, but I’m looking forward to Lamar having one of those great games.”
Unfortunately for the Aggies, they will be without backup quarterback Kylil Carter, who was involved in a car accident over the Thanksgiving break and suffered a leg injury. Carter saw action in every game this season and served as a capable replacement whenever Raynard struggled or was hurt.
For the Braves, their offense is led by dual threat quarterback Noah Johnson who threw for 2,079 yards and 15 touchdowns while also running for 960 yards and nine touchdowns.
Johnson helped power the No. 1 scoring offense in the SWAC (33.5 points per game) and it came as little surprise when he was named SWAC Offensive Player of the Year.
Yet even with the number of skills players that will be on display this weekend, this game – like most championship match-ups- will likely be decided in the trenches.
A&T’s famed Blue Death defensive unit finished the regular season ranked second in the nation in total defense and number one against the run, allowing just 72.6 yards on the ground. Junior defensive end Darryl Johnson, Jr. led the conference with 10.5 sacks and was named MEAC Defensive Player of the Year.
To their credit, the Braves also bring an impressive defensive resumé into this contest.
Alcorn led the nation in sacks this season with 51 and ranked fourth overall in total defense, giving up just 288.7 yards per contest. After reviewing the Braves’ game film, Washington said one defender in particular stood out to him.
“(Sterling) Shippy, the defensive lineman“ said Washington. “That’s what jumps off the tape right off the bat. He gets off the snap and causes havoc. We’ve got to find a way to get him blocked. It’s that simple.”
Shippy, a 6-foot-1, 300 pound senior defensive tackle, finished the regular season with eight sacks and two forced fumbles to earn first team All SWAC honors.
“I think a lot of their defense success is determined by him. If he’s going, they’re going.”