ATLANTA – When the Celebration Bowl started, no one would know how the game would go for North Carolina A&T or Alcorn but the end result of the national championship game was every bit as advertised as it could get.
The National Championship returns back to North Carolina when the final whistle blew in the 24-22 game but getting to that score was a journey that had to be witnessed.
“I thought the first half was pretty solid and I thought we played well on both sides of the ball and punted the ball well in the first half,” Aggie head coach Sam Washington said. “We were able to keep them out of the endzone with our defense and we were able to score points.”
The Aggies held a 17-6 lead heading into halftime but that would only be the middle of the story. North Carolina A&T was the dominant party in the first half and on paper, the Aggies and the Braves were almost even.
The Aggies ran 31 plays for 197 yards including two touchdown passes from Lamar Raynard. Alcorn wasn’t too far behind with 39 plays for 169 yards but their offensive output came from kicker Corey McCullough for their six points.
Of course, it was a tale of two halves as the Braves found their stride against North Carolina’s defense.
“In the second half, I wasn’t quite as happy with the outcome,” Washington said. “I thought that we didn’t play as well and then they found the Zone-Seal. They started running the Zone-Seal and Zone-Seal keep and we got our eyes in the wrong place and they popped us for two big ones. That’s one of the things that we just do not do. That’s give up long runs. We gave up two big ones and that really just throws everything out of sync.”
Alcorn running back and Georgia-native De’Shawn Waller went from 28 yards rushing in the first half to 144 yards rushing over the course of the third quarter after he broke two rushes for 48 and 54 yards. The interesting note of the third quarter was each time Waller broke a big rush for the Braves, the program scored.
But the Braves didn’t score touchdowns – it was the just McCullough field goals that Alcorn was able to knock in.
“That stand was very critical to our success and we felt that if we got them stopped, we would have a chance,” Washington said. “We could’ve did somethings better and I thought the adjustments we made should have been made sooner. That’s partly on my shoulders there. It happened the way it happened and it happened the way it should have happened.”
Down 17-16 as the third quarter drew to a close, a kickoff return went errant for the Braves.
Malik Wilson caught the ball at the Aggies 21 and took it too the house for a 79-yard return. The return would turn out to be the final time the Aggies would score in the game.
Up 24-16 and heading into the fourth quarter, the Braves were looking for any way to tie the game up. Their scoring drive came swiftly in the fourth quarter.
A little over three and a half minutes passed and the Aggie defense finally gave up another touchdown. Braves quarterback Noah Johnson pulled the ball back on an option and tore down the field for the 59-yard touchdown.
The decision that sealed the game came right after the score. Johnson tossed the ball to the back corner of the endzone on what was an assured catch, but the call came as incomplete from the officials.
There was no explanation for Braves head coach Fred McNair on why it was incomplete following a review.
“No one said what the explanation was,” McNair said. “They just said it was confirmed that it was incomplete. I’ve been in football a long time and I know how instant replay is. I was looking for his foot being out of bounds, a juggle. Just tell me something but there wasn’t one.”
Alcorn had two more chances to score in the game but the Braves would fall short as the Aggies defense stopped the drive just five plays in.
The victory handed North Carolina A&T their third National Championship in three years.