ATLANTA (AP) — Lamar Raynard passed for 292 yards and two touchdowns and Malik Wilson returned a kickoff for the game-sealing touchdown Saturday as North Carolina A&T held off Alcorn State to win the Celebration Bowl 24-22, and the Aggies captured their second straight HBCU national championship and third in four years.
The Celebration Bowl kicks off the bowl season by matching up the champions of two historically black leagues, the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and the Southwestern Athletic Conference, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Raynard, a senior who finished his career with a 35-2 record as a starter, did most of his damage in the first half with touchdown passes of 17 yards to Zachary Leslie and 27 yards to Elijah Bell as North Carolina A&T (10-2) built a 17-3 lead in the second quarter.
Alcorn State (9-4) stormed back in the third quarter. De'Shawn Waller tallied 116 of his 167 rushing yards on just four carries in the period while playing about six miles east of where he grew up.
The Braves pulled within 17-16 on a 30-yard touchdown run by quarterback Noah Johnson, the SWAC Offensive Player of the Year, and a 29-yard field goal with 51 seconds left in the quarter. Johnson rushed for 120 yards and passed for 128.
Wilson countered immediately, fielding the short kickoff on the left side of the field. He took off diagonally toward the middle and then cut up the right sideline for a 79-yard score.
It was the senior's school-record fourth kickoff return for a touchdown this season alongside scores of 98, 99 and 100 yards.
Johnson scored on a 59-yard option keeper early in the fourth quarter to pull the Braves within 24-22.
Johnson rolled out on the ensuing two-point conversion try, and his pass to a sliding Chris Harris was ruled incomplete. Alcorn State punted on its next possession with 5:55 remaining and didn't get the ball back as North Carolina A&T put together a game-ending 11-play drive.
North Carolina A&T: Other than the clock-eating final drive, the Aggies were stymied on offense in the second half, with Wilson's kickoff return bailing them out. The Aggies entered the game ranked No. 1 in the HBCU poll and No. 11 in FCS.
Alcorn State: The Braves bullied North Carolina A&T in the second half, with 258 of their 328 total rushing yards on 20 carries. They flipped the script from when these teams met in the first Celebration Bowl in 2015. In that one, they lost 41-34 when North Carolina A&T running back Tarik Cohen, now with the Chicago Bears, rushed for 295 yards.
Alcorn State played without starting wide receiver Dayall Harris, who did not make the trip to Atlanta for disciplinary reasons. The senior was the Braves' fourth-leading receiver during the regular season with 28 catches in 11 games, with four touchdowns and a team-leading 15.8-yard average per reception.
North Carolina A&T: The Aggies will replace at least seven starters on defense and at least eight on offense, including Raynard, the entire line, tight end Leroy Hill and running back Marquell Cartwright before opening the 2019 season at home against Elon and then traveling 50 miles to play at Duke.
Alcorn State: The Braves will lose at least four defensive and three offensive starters ahead of their season-opening trip to Southern Mississippi, which will be followed by a game at McNeese State.
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