by Ben Ennis
ATLANTA, GA. – Over the last seven days, Mercedes-Benz Stadium has been the site for the crowning of nine football champions with some of the wins coming in dramatic and unexpected fashion. Given that soccer is considered the original football by most, last Saturday the hometown Atlanta United Soccer Team – just in its second year of existence – shocked the soccer world by shutting out a team it never beat before, The Portland Timbers 2-0 to become MLS Cup Champions. On Tuesday and Wednesday eight Georgia High Schools won state championships in various classes. Exciting and thrilling finishes abound in the stadium as one high school team Cedar Grove won a 14-13 thriller on a touchdown pass and completion with four seconds remaining in the game. One underdog, Bainbridge High School, that was previously beaten by its Championship Finals opponent, Warner Robins, 38-0 earlier in the season won a three overtime thriller 47-41 to claim the Class 5-AAAAA Championship. In the final 2018 high school football at the Benz, the largest high school football class division in Georgia 14-0 number one ranked in Georgia and number five ranked in the nation 21-point favored Colquitt County lost to Milton 14-13 in what some consider as the biggest upset in the history of Georgia’s Class 7-AAAAAAA football. Now we come full circle to this Saturday at the Benz that started as dreary and cloudy outside but transitioned to a clear and cool day with sunshine occasionally peeping through the clouds as 31,672 fans filed into the stadium to witness the crowning of what is considered as the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) Football Championship, The Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl Game.
North Carolina A&T was projected to win the game. But perhaps the fans would witness another upset. Would this game pitting Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) Alcorn State potent offense against Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) North Carolina A&T vaulted defense live up to the hype? Would there be the exciting and dramatic finish that kept fans in their seats from start to finish as witnessed in the stadium over the previous days, especially since the two teams previously played against each other in the inaugural Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl?
At the pre-game news conference Aggies first-year head coach Sam Washington stressed the need to stick with fundamentals and keep playing whether you were ahead or behind in the game. Washington motto is “Staying the Course.” Something bad happens keep playing, something good happens keep playing. Coach Washington concerns were on point as the Braves concluded the game with a 451-324 total offense edge over his Aggies to include a 328-38 rushing yards advantage.
At half time, North Carolina A&T led 17-6 and the game appeared to be a possible blowout. But it was Alcorn State that kept playing with their quarterback Noah Johnson scoring on a 30-yard run in the third quarter. Next, Braves’ kicker Corey McCullough connected on a 29-yard field goal in the third quarter to make the score 17-16. Then with 38 seconds remaining in the third quarter, Aggies’ Malik Wilson returned a kickoff 79 yards for the 24-16 lead. In the post game interview, Coach Washington said,“For the third time this year when the opposing team had momentum on their side, 100 percent in their favor Malik returned the kick off for a touchdown and we got big mo right back and that’s crucial. I don’t care where and who you are playing against that takes the wind out of your sails.”
You would think based on Coach Washington’s analysis, Alcorn State’s will should have been broken but Johnson followed up with a 59-yard run in the fourth quarter with 11:55 remaining to make the score 24-22. Then drama and excitement took over as Alcorn State attempted a failed two-point conversion to tie the game leading to a controversial call that was upheld after replay review. So unlike the other teams that were upset at the Benz over the last seven days, North Carolina A&T stayed the course and won their third Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl Championship.
Aggies quarterback Lamar Raynard was named the game’s MVP after throwing for 292 yards and two touchdowns. Zachary Leslie led in receptions after catching six passes for 119 yards and a score. Richie Kittle led with nine tackles and 4.0 tackles for a loss on defense.
North Carolina A&T has won three of the five Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl Championship games. Now the question is, are they the Alabama of HBCU football?
Photos by Ben Ennis