College football's bowl season kicked off on Saturday with the North Carolina A&T Aggies defeating the Alcorn State Braves 24-22 in the 2018 Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
The Braves had a chance to tie the game on a two-point conversion with 11:55 left in the fourth quarter. Chris Blair appeared to haul in the pass from Noah Johnson, but he momentarily bobbled the ball while falling out of bounds after Jalon Bethea got his hand on it to force an incompletion.
That would be the last scoring opportunity for either team the rest of the game.
Even though the Celebration Bowl is still in its infancy—this marks the fourth year it's been played—North Carolina A&T has dominated it thus far. This is the Aggies' second straight win and third overall in the unofficial championship game for HBCU (historical black colleges and universities) football.
This was also a matchup of strength vs. strength, with Alcorn State's eighth-ranked rushing offense (282.3 yards per game) against North Carolina A&T's second-ranked run defense (72.6 yards allowed per game).
Alcorn State actually won that particular battle with 328 rushing yards. Johnson and De'Shawn Waller both cracked the 100-yard mark in defeat.
It seemed early on that both coaches were going to operate in a conservative fashion and play the field-position game, like when Sam Washington had the Aggies punt after getting fairly deep into Alcorn State territory:
Despite that early conservative play, North Carolina A&T eventually opened up the offense to let quarterback Lamar Raynard make plays with his arm, and this 27-yard score to Elijah Bell was a great example:
Raynard, who was playing in his final college game, went out with a bang. He finished 18-of-30 for 292 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.
Special teams played a huge role in getting the Aggies back on track after Alcorn State scored 10 points in the span of four minutes late in the third quarter:
The game found a completely different gear after halftime, including a stretch of three straight possessions ending with a score.
After a slow start with just 84 rushing yards in the first half, the Braves exploded for 244 after the intermission. Waller and Johnson combined for 86 of those yards in a span of three plays to help cut the Braves' deficit to 17-13.
After briefly playing at the pace of a typical Big 12 game, North Carolina A&T slowed things down in a way that better suited its tempo. Clinging to a 24-22 lead, it took four minutes off the clock in a six-play drive that resulted in a punt.
When the Aggies defense forced a punt, Raynard went back to work trying to preserve the lead. He sealed the win with a 14-yard completion to Isaiah Hicklin on 3rd-and-11 that allowed them to run out the clock.
Washington told Jeff Mills of the News & Record leading up to the Celebration Bowl that his senior quarterback has been able to succeed this season by being calm under pressure.
"Lamar is a level-headed young man, and he knows what he needs to do to be successful," Washington said. "And that is to remain cool, calm and collected, and take what they give him. We don't need him to be supernatural. We just need him to play a good, solid football game and make sound decisions."
Raynard proved his coach right with a terrific finish to the game and a fitting cap to an excellent college career. He leaves North Carolina A&T with back-to-back wins in the Celebration Bowl.