ATLANTA, Ga. – North Carolina A&T State quarterback Lamar Raynard passed for 292 yards and two scores to lift the Aggies to a 24-22 Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl win over Alcorn State of the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) Saturday before a crowd of 31,672 at Mercedes Benz Stadium and a national ABC television audience.
The Aggie win gave the MEAC a 3-1 advantage in the bowl season-opener which annually pits the MEAC champion against the winner of the SWAC. The victory also gave NC A&T back-to-back wins in the event and its third triumph in three appearances in the four-year old bowl.
The 11th ranked Aggies and first-year head coach Sam Washington, finished the campaign at 10-2 and will claim their second straight National Black College Championship and their third title in four seasons.
Saturday’s contest was a rematch of the 2015 inaugural Celebration Bowl in which the Aggies defeated the Braves 41-34 behind a 295-yard rushing, three touchdown performance by running back Tarik Cohen, who is now in his second season with the Chicago Bears.
Raynard, a 6-4, 195 redshirt senior of High Point, N.C., connected on 18-of-30 attempts, with one interception, in the game and had scoring tosses of 17 yards to Zachary Leslie on the game’s opening drive, staking his team to a 7-0 lead and 27 yards to Elijah Bell with less than a minute left in the half for a 17-3 Aggie edge.
It was Raynard’s best passing performance of the season, and NC A&T needed it as the Aggies were limited to just 38 net yards rushing in 31 attempts for 324 total yards in the contest.
Noel Ruiz added a 36-yard field goal and Malik Wilson returned a kickoff 88 yards for a touchdown to round out the Aggie scoring.
The Braves, despite the loss, rolled up 451 yards total offense, including 328 yards on the ground. Alcorn quarterback Noah Johnson completed 12-of-21 passes for 123 yards, while suffering one interception. De’Shawn Waller led the Alcorn running attack with 167 yards. Johnson was also a factor in the Braves’ running game, gaining 120 yards on 14 attempts with two touchdowns.
Coach Fred McNair’s team also got three field goals from Corey McCullough, two from 29 yards away and one 25-yarder in the loss.
North Carolina A&T State limited the Braves to two McCullough field goals in taking a 17-6 lead at the half but Washington’s team had trouble stopping Alcorn’s potent rushing attack in the second half.
“In the first half, I thought we played well on both sides of the football,” Washington stated in the postgame news conference. “We kept them out of the end zone, but they started running that zone seal on us in the second half and our eyes were in the wrong place and we gave up to big ones (scoring runs).
“We could have done things better, made some earlier adjustments but we made the critical stop when we needed to near the end when we forced a three-and-out and got the ball back to run out the clock. We also stopped the two-point conversion and got the kickoff return for a score.
“It was a great win for us,” he continued. “It’s very important to get an opportunity to play in the postseason and getting to play in a bowl game is really great.”
The Aggies opened the scoring on Raynard’s scoring toss to Leslie, who had six catches for 119 yards, with 12:38 left in the first quarter, staking the MEAC kingpin to a 7-0 lead, following the first of Noel Ruiz’s three extra points.
McCullough’s first field goal, the first 29-yarder, pulled the Braves to within 7-3 with 2:52 left in the period. Ruiz, following an interception by the Aggies’ Timadre Abram, nailed a 36-yard field goal to increase the NC A&T lead to 10-7 with 8:33 on the second period clock
Raynard, named the Offensive Player of the game, found Bell from 27 yards away to stake his team to a 17-3 advantage with 53 seconds left in the half, but the Braves drove 67 yards in eight plays and got a 25-yard field goal from McCullough, his second of the game, to reach the half down 17-6. Bell, who had six catches for 68 yards and a score, tied a school record for career touchdowns with 25.
With 4:29 left in the third, Alcorn pulled to within 17-13 when Johnson broke a 30-yard scoring run, culminating a four-play, 86-yard drive. The Braves pulled to within 17-16 when McCullough was good on a 29-yard field goal with 51 seconds left in the third.
But just as the Braves appeared to have momentum after scoring 10 unanswered points, The Aggies’ Malik Wilson took the kickoff at his 12, got to the outside and raced untouched for 88 yards and a touchdown that put his team ahead 24-16 following the extra point by Ruiz with 38 seconds in the period. It was Wilson’s fourth kickoff return for a touchdown this season, setting a school single-season record.
Johnson got his second long scoring run, from 59 yards out, with 11:55 left in the final period to culminate a nine-play, 92-yard march to pull his team to within 24-22 and put the Braves in a position to tie with a successful two-point conversion.
On a run-pass option, Johnson rolled out and found Alcorn’s Chris Blair for what appeared to be the tying conversion, however, it was called no good as he juggled the ball while going out of bounds. After the ensuing kickoff, the Braves forced a punt by the Aggies but were unable to move the ball and had to punt themselves. They never got the ball back as NC A&T picked up three first downs to run out the clock.
Despite the loss, The Braves’ Fred McNair praised his team, which concluded a 9-4 campaign.
“I’m proud of these young men and the effort they gave in the game and how they competed throughout the season,” he said. “I told them that the game of football, like life, has its obstacles, but life goes on. It was a tough loss for our seniors. The kickoff return for a touchdown and the missed two-point conversion were the difference in the ball game.”