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Friday, September 22, 2023

Aggies win back to back Celebration Bowls

By Semaj Marsh, Peacemaker Sports / December 21, 2018

Members of the Aggie offensive line celebrate A&T’s first touchdown by Zach Leslie (#19), a sophomore wide receiver. Photo by Joe Daniels/Carolina Peacemaker

In its only two losses this season, A&T had a chance to run out the clock at the end of both games but instead surrendered the ball back to their opponents who then drove down the field and kicked game-winning field goals as time expired.

Therefore, it could be viewed as “poetic justice” when the Aggies’ offense was finally able to embark on a long, decisive drive in the closing minutes of the Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl on December 15 to maintain possession and hold off a feisty Alcorn State team, 24-22.

The victory earned A&T its third HBCU national title in four years and helped exorcise the demons from the Aggies’ earlier heartbreaking defeats to Morgan State and Florida A&M.

“Their perseverance set them apart,” said A&T head coach Sam Washington about his departing seniors who ended their careers with a 41-7 overall record, three MEAC titles, three national titles and three wins over FBS schools. “Their willingness and their want-to and their work ethic, they got it. They understood what we were preaching and teaching. This group here understood what we were saying, and they were willing to put in the time and work necessary to be successful.”

Washington himself achieved history, becoming the first A&T head coach to capture a national title in his first season.

The atmosphere inside Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium was electric even before kickoff, as a crowd of 31,672 watched as A&T dominated the early action and then withstood a frantic rally from the Braves in the second half.

A&T senior quarterback Lamar Raynard was named the game’s offensive Most Valuable Player after throwing for a season-high 292 yards and two touchdowns.

During the game-sealing drive he completed a 14 yard pass to seldom-used slot receiver Isiah Hicklin on third-and-eleven to move the sticks. That conversion allowed A&T to bleed the final minutes off the clock and extinguish any hopes the Braves had of completing a miracle comeback.

“It’s my last game at North Carolina A&T, and I really can’t describe the feeling,” said an emotional Raynard afterwards. “It really hasn’t hit me yet. This senior class put in a lot of work. I’m going to miss my guys, and I’m glad we could go out on top. We really wanted this.”

A&T, who finished 2018 with a 10-2 record, never trailed in this contest.

The Aggies took a 7-0 lead on the game’s opening possession when Raynard connected with Zach Leslie on a post route from 17 yards out.

Leslie would set a Celebration Bowl record with a game-high 119 receiving yards on six catches.

After going three and out on their first drive, Alcorn finally responded with a 14-play, 84 yard drive that resulted a 29 yard field goal from Corey McCullough.

Both teams traded field goals over the next 10 minutes before A&T extended its lead to 17-3 late in the second quarter when Raynard found junior receiver Elijah Bell wide open down the sideline for a 27-yard touchdown.

Right before the half, Alcorn drove down inside the Aggies’ 10 yard line before settling for a 25- yard field goal to make the score 17-6 at the break.

In the second half, it appeared A&T was poised to put the game out of a reach, but a promising 70-yard drive resulted in zero points thanks to a botched field goal attempt. That untimely miscue seemed to spark life inside the Braves, who gradually began to control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.

Prior to the contest, Washington was confident that Alcorn wouldn’t be able to find much success running the ball against his No. 2 ranked rushing defense. However, the Braves did just that, racking up 328 yards on the ground, led by Braves’ running back De’Shawn Waller who recorded a game high 167 yards rushing on 19 carries.

Alcorn State junior quarterback Noah Jones, who was named the SWAC offensive player of the year, also lived up to his billing, running for 120 yards on the ground including two long touchdowns in the second half.

“That’s something we do not do,” said Washington afterwards. “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.”

His 30 yard scamper late in the third quarter capped a four-play, 86 yard scoring drive that brought Alcorn to within 17-13.

On their next drive, the Braves narrowed the deficit to one when McCullough connected on a 29-yard field goal with 51 second remaining in the third quarter. However, just when it appeared Alcorn State had begun to seize momentum for good, a familiar hero emerged on the Aggies’ special teams unit.

Malik Wilson, who led the MEAC in kick returns this season, fielded the ensuing kickoff from his own 21 yard line, found a sliver of daylight around the edge and then followed his blockers down the sideline for a 79 yard touchdown.

“We all saw the score, it was clutch,” said Wilson, who set a school record with his fourth kickoff return touchdown this season. “That kick return was really big. I thank God for putting [me] 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.”
The Aggies celebration would be short-lived, however, as Jones again led Alcorn on a scoring drive, this time taking matters into his own hands with a 59 yard touchdown run on a read option, right up the middle of A&T’s defense.

The Braves then attempted a two-point conversion that would have tied the game, but Johnson’s pass to Chris Blair was ruled incomplete.

After forcing a turnover on downs, Alcorn received the ball one last time, needing just a field goal to take the lead. Yet, A&T’s defense would force a quick punt after just a 5-play, 12-yard drive and then the Aggies’ offense made sure Alcorn never saw the ball again.

“We had the time of our lives in Atlanta this week,” said a smiling Washington in the post game press conference. “And I would love for you all to have us back next year.”

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