Duane Nash is our resident HBCU expert and operator of The Yard-HBCU Sports. You can follow Duane — like 7,000 other big-time HBCU fans have — on Twitter @TheYardHBCU. Duane will give readers weekly insight into what teams will win the big games, which individuals are in contention for big honors … and much, much more.
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Here is Duane's take for this weekend's Celebration Bowl:
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
That’s the famous idiom, right? Well, I guess it could also be used to describe the 2019 Celebration Bowl between MEAC Champion North Carolina A&T and SWAC Champion Alcorn State.
There are several elements of this game that will seem very reminiscent.
In its fifth year of existence, this is the third time these two teams face off in the Celebration Bowl. Same schools. Same head coaches. Same bands… yeah, yeah, yeah, I know. But don’t prejudge this matchup, which seems quite familiar on its exterior.
This game does feature (again) two finalists for the Black College Football Player of the Year award. Last year, it was Alcorn State’s Noah Johnson and North Carolina A&T’s Darryl Johnson, Jr. (no relation). This year, it’s Braves QB Felix Harper and Aggies RB Jah-Maine Martin.
Their respective paths to Atlanta were also like 2018. Both teams were picked to finish first in their respective conferences in the preseason, like last year. The Braves finishing the season, again, with a record of 9-3. The Aggies, well, stumbled again against Florida A&M and Morgan State, and if not for a self-imposed postseason ban by the Rattlers, A&T, which finished the year 8-3, would not be the MEAC representatives of the Celebration Bowl.
In its previous four games, the outcome usually comes down to the final possession. With no team winning by more than seven, the series has an average point differential of four. Last year, the Aggies were able to hold off Alcorn State 24-22. I expect a similar outcome on Saturday.
Once again, the Aggies and Braves are evenly matched. This season, both teams are averaging over 30 points per game for at least a second consecutive season — Alcorn State averages 32.8 PPG to North Carolina A&T’s 35.7 PPG – and are the best statistical defensive teams in their respective conferences, ranked #1 in both Total and Scoring Defense.
Both of the starting quarterbacks have appeared in the Celebration Bowl in previous years, but as backups.
Aggie QB Kylil Carter returned this season after suffering a horrific leg injury in a car accident late last season. The dual-threat quarterback finished the year with 212.6 yards of Total Offense. Carter can get the ball out to his play-making wide receivers, Second-Team All-MEAC WR Elijah Bell (53 rec, 6 TDs) and WR Zachary Leslie (38 rec, 4 TDs), but run the ball when needed, averaging 4.6 yards per carry.
All-SWAC First Team defender CB Qwynnterrio Cole (78 Tkls, 5 Ints) and Taurence Wilson (4 Ints, 6 PD) will look to shut them down.
Harper, a Black College Football Player of the Year candidate, had a monumental season in his first year as a starter at Alcorn. Even though the QB had a rough outing in the SWAC Championship Game (226 yds, TD, 2 Ints), Harper finished the year with 34 total touchdowns and eight interceptions.
The MEAC’s second-best pass defense, led by All-MEAC DB Mac McCain (21 Tkls, 2 FR, FF) and Chris Mosley (3 Ints) will face off against a Braves offense that likes to spread the ball around. Alcorn has four players with at least 20 receptions, led by WR LeCharles Pringle (42 rec, 762 yds, 14 TDs). The wideout was named Offensive MVP of the SWAC Championship Game after catching five passes for a career-high 145 yards and a touchdown.
Historically, the Aggies are known for their run game. This season isn’t any different. A&T has a three-pronged rushing attack – Martin, RB Kashon Baker and QB Kylil Carter — that average a robust 237 yards per game. However, the Braves, led by All-SWAC LB Solomon Muhammad (81 Tkls, 9.5 TFL, 2 FF, 2 FR) and SWAC Championship Game Defensive MVP Juwan Taylor (80 Tkls, 5.5 TFL, 2 FF, FR), have the second-best rushing defense in the SWAC and will look to slow down the Aggies.
Alcorn’s ground game is a little different from last season. RB De’Shawn Waller (458 rush yds, 3 TDs) returns for Alcorn, but an injury-riddled season has reduced his attempts and yards this season. Change of pace RB Niko Duffey (790 rush yds, 6 TDs) is the Braves’ leading rusher while splitting duty with Waller. They will be challenged trying to move the ball against the best defense they have seen all season. The Aggies, ranked third in the nation against the run, has eight players – including LB Jacob Roberts (56 Tkls, 11.5 TFL), LB Kyin Howard (70 Tkls, 8.0 TFL, 2 FF, FR), and LB Joseph Stuckey (65 Tkls, 5.0 TFL, 3 FR, FF) – that were selected to the All-MEAC Team this year.
As simple as it sounds, if you want to beat Alcorn, don't let them score. The Braves are 0-3 when they are held to under 26 points. If Coach Fred McNair and Alcorn State want to redeem themselves from last year's defeat, they will have to finish each half strong and Felix Harper will have to have an "average" game.
Over their last three games, Alcorn's best scoring output has come in the second (45 pts) and fourth (33 pts) quarters of games, and an "average" game for Harper is about 260 pass yards and 3 TDs.
If the Braves can employ a similar strategy, there is a good chance they can defeat A&T, who is 1-3 in games where they trailed at halftime and 2-3 when quarterbacks pass for over 200 yards against them. Easier said than done when you're talking about an A&T defense that allows 194 passing yards a game this season, 132 yards in the air against their last two opponents, and 18.6 points per game which ranks tenth in the nation.
The Braves defense will have to do their best in stopping Martin. Alcorn allows 137.8 rushing yards a game this season, but they will have to focus their efforts towards Martin. The Aggies are undefeated this season when Jah-Maine rushes for over 100 yards.
Alcorn will be looking for a little closure after a season of “what could’ve been” last year. There is a distinct possibility that last year’s two-point loss to the Aggies is still lingering in their minds. If not, they sure have been asked about it fifty-eleven times this week.
And in a game where you don't want to leave points on the field, scoring in the red zone is a must.
Keep an eye on how both teams perform inside the 20s. The Aggies have the 19th-ranked Red Zone Offense, scoring points almost 88% of the time in short field situations. Alcorn State, however, allows points 67.5% of the time, third-best in the nation. Also, watch for Alcorn K Corey McCullough. 10-18 FG this season, is perfect this year under 30 yards and is 42-44 XP but is 50% over 31, including going 2-6 in his last three games.
Prediction: Aggies 30, Braves 24
Like I said earlier, I expect this game to come down to the wire again, with the Aggies winning the Celebration Bowl for a fourth time. Even though the tagline for the game is "A Champion Will Be Crowned", that may not be the case this season In Black College Football. But that's another story.
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