ATLANTA -- North Carolina A&T had a good idea that Alcorn State would try to slow down the running game. However, the Aggies couldn’t have predicted that Kylil Carter would have so much success throwing the ball.
Carter passed for six touchdowns and North Carolina A&T racked up enormous offensive totals to beat Alcorn State 64-44 in the Celebration Bowl on Saturday for its third consecutive HBCU national championship title and fourth in five years.
Carter completed 18 of 30 passes for 364 yards, and added 96 on the ground. Korey Banks and Elijah Bell each caught a pair of scoring passes for NC A&T, which has beaten Alcorn State in three of the five Celebration Bowls -- including two straight.
“What a game,” Aggies coach Sam Washington said. “Offensively, I thought both teams played well. Defensively, not so much, ... It was very entertaining.”
The Braves led 3-0 after one quarter, and then the scoring started.
Alcorn State quarterback Felix Harper passed for 341 yards and three scores, but the Braves trailed 24-10 at halftime and NC A&T steadily stacked points from there.
The teams combined for 49 points in the third quarter, when NC A&T scored touchdowns on its first four possessions of the period and Alcorn State banked touchdowns on its first three drives. The Aggies rolled to 290 yards in the quarter, and Alcorn State added 238.
NCA&T scored eight touchdowns, two field goals and added two points when Amir McNeil picked up a poorly-snapped PAT by Alcorn State and raced nearly 90 yards with less than five minutes to go in the game.
The Aggies lost two fumbles and punted three times yet still put up 574 of the game's combined 1,034 yards.
NC A&T took the lead when senior Bell ran past the Alcorn State secondary and pulled in a 53-yard touchdown pass with 13:03 left in the second quarter. That was good for a 7-3 edge and extended Bell’s school record to 32 career touchdowns receiving.
Alcorn State moved ahead briefly when Harper found wide receiver Chris Blair wide open for a 59-yard scoring pass with 7:55 left.
That 10-7 advantage didn’t last long, as NC A&T scored the final 17 points of the second quarter. The Aggies had a 59-yard touchdown pass to Zachary Leslie and a 4-yard scoring pass to Korey Banks around a 28-yard field goal from Noel Ruiz to take a 24-10 lead at halftime. The field goal came shortly after freshman linebacker Jacob Roberts intercepted Harper's pass and returned it 28 yards to Alcorn State’s 5-yard-line.
NC A&T receivers repeatedly got open behind Alcorn State defenders for big plays with the Braves gearing up against Aggies running back Jah-Maine Martin.
Both quarterbacks grew up outside of Atlanta, and Carter most enjoyed his reunion.
“Playing in front of my family is a blessing because most of my family can’t make it to see me play in (Greensboro), North Carolina . . . it’s a great feeling,” he said. “We watched film on them and we knew with heavy play-action they were going to come down (near the line of scrimmage).”
Martin helped NC A&T put the game away in the third quarter. He rushed seven times in 0the first half for one yard, but he took the first play of the second half 75 yards off right tackle to score. Martin gained 117 yards rushing in the period. He finished with 110 yards on the ground.
Although Alcorn State countered quickly when Harper scored on a six-yard run to cap a 10-play, 75-yard drive, NC A&T was quicker to answer when another long pass by Carter found Aggies wide receiver Ron Hunt wide open deep for a 43-yard score and a 38-17 lead early in the third.
Alcorn State coach Fred McNair said the Braves were too often too aggressive on defense.
“Too many mistakes, too many points give up. We just didn’t get it done,” he said. “Bad eyes (by) the safety, corners.”
The Braves entered the game No. 1 in the nation among FCS schools with 34 takeaways, and they stripped NC A&T’s Banks on a punt return to set up possession at the Aggies’ 23-yard line. Four plays later, Corey McCullough kicked a 28-yard field goal for the early lead with 3:17 left in the first quarter.
Alcorn State: The Braves were plenty potent on offense and battled from start to finish, but they simply couldn't keep NCA&T wide receivers in front of them as the Aggies were wide open time and time again.
North Carolina A & T: Even with their gaudy passing numbers, the Aggies ran a fairly balanced attack. They rushed the ball 33 times for 210 yards.
Washington said that winning three straight HBCU national titles brings him joy, but it's not easy.
“Throughout the year, it can be taxing, but we know there is a huge reward at the end of the tunnel," he said. "It’s worth the journey.”
THERE WAS SOME DEFENSE
NC A&T freshman linebacker Jacob Roberts was named defensive player of the game after six tackles and a second-quarter interception that he returned 28 yards to the Alcorn State 5-yard line. That set up a field goal.
Alcorn State: Harper may return at quarterback as a fifth-year senior, but the Braves will lose seven starters on offense and five on defense. Running back De’Shawn Waller, who played a lot this season, also is a senior and will depart, and kicker/punter Corey McCullough is a senior as well.
North Carolina A&T: QCarter’s eligibility is expired, and the graduate student will be one of four offensive starters to depart while the defense is slated to lose five starters. The Aggies figure to return a good amount of offensive firepower with wide receivers Banks, Israel Spivey and running back Martin all in line to return.