Blah blah blah blah rematch of 2015.
By now, you have seen (and read) all kinds of previews for this weekends’ Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl but mine (hopefully) is different.
Even though Alcorn State’s SWAC Offensive Player of the Year redshirt junior quarterback Noah Johnson and North Carolina A&T’s MEAC Defensive Player of the Year redshirt junior defensive lineman Darryl Johnson, Jr. (no relation) are great — and I’ll explain why later — there is more to this matchup.
You’re probably asking “how IS your preview gonna be different, D?!!?” Here’s how. So, you wanna know who will have the edge edge between Sam Washington’s North Carolina A&T Aggies and Fred McNair’s Alcorn State Braves? Allow me to break down the match-up by the numbers.
The road to the Celebration Bowl
You can say it was destined to be. Both teams were predicted to be one of the best in their respective conferences, North Carolina A&T in the MEAC and Alcorn State earned the second most votes in the SWAC. How they made it here, however, wasn’t as clear cut for these teams.
With their only conference loss coming to Alabama State, the Braves was clearly the best team in the SWAC, finishing the season with a record of 9-3. At 3-0, the Aggies started the season as one of the hottest teams in FCS football, with wins over Jacksonville State and East Carolina. North Carolina A&T would soon have it’s 15-game win streak snapped, losing to Morgan State and again to Florida A&M.
With a little help from Howard and Bethune-Cookman, the Aggies — who finished the season with a four-game win streak — would end the year as MEAC Champs.
Who comes out on top?
Past Celebration Bowls have been close, usually coming down to the final drives and ending in an average point differential of five. It won’t be any different on Saturday.
Entering this year’s match-up, both teams are relatively similar. From points scored — Alcorn State averages 33.5 PPG to North Carolina A&T’s 30.6 PPG — to time of possession, passing touchdown-to-interception ratio, third down conversion percentage, red zone scoring percentage and sacks allowed per game, the Braves and Aggies are evenly matched.
They both even have a player in contention for The Black College Player of the Year, Alcorn’s Noah Johnson and A&T Darryl Johnson, Jr.
The Running Game
Both teams operate an offense that is predicated in their rushing attacks. Alcorn is led by their three-headed monster, Noah Johnson, SWAC Newcomer of the Year redshirt junior running back De’Shawn Waller and running back PJ Simmons.
The trio leads a Braves offense that averages a combined 282.3 yards, 8th best in the nation. Over their last four games, Alcorn has compiled 1,174 yards on the ground and scored nine touchdowns.
The Aggies, meanwhile, has leaned on the combination of MEAC leading rusher and all-conference performer senior running back Marquell Cartwright and reshirt sophomore running back Jah-Maine Martin. The duo has rushed for at least 90 yards each in four games this season, amassing a combined 1,627 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2018.
The Passing Game
This season, the Aggies and Braves have used the run game to open up the passing attack. A&T’s passing numbers are down this season in comparison to last but they are talented. Aggie senior quarterback Lamar Raynard will look to connect with wide outs junior Elijah Bell (42 receptions, 5 TDs) and redshirt sophomore Zachary Leslie (44 receptions, 8 TDs).
Alcorn’s wide receivers junior Chris Blair (487 yds, 6 TDs) and senior Dayall Harris (441 yds, 4 TDs) will face off against All-MEAC defenders redshirt senior Timadre Abram (3 INTs) and redshirt sophomore Mac McCain (2 INTs), who had a 100 yard interception return for a touchdown against East Carolina.
Key match-up #1:
Alcorn’s Offensive Line vs. North Carolina A&T’s Defensive Line
Ranked 12th in the nation, averaging 475.2 yards per game, the strength of the Braves’ offense starts with it’s offensive line. Led by All-SWAC offensive linemen redshirt senior Chris McCrea, junior Mustaffa Ibrahim and redshirt junior Kevin Hall, this unit only allows about a sack per game — 1.17, to be exact — ranking 20th in the nation.
They will have their hands full when they line up against All-MEAC stand-outs Darryl Johnson, Jr and senior defensive linemen Justin Cates and Julian McKnight. Combine that trio with senior defensive end Sam Blue, and you’ll get a front line that tallied 47.5 tackles for a loss this season. Oh yeah, Johnson also has 10.5 sacks, tied for 8th most in the nation.
Key match-up #2:
North Carolina A&T’s Offensive Line vs. Alcorn’s Defensive Line
North Carolina A&T wouldn’t be able to claim that they are “Running Back University” if they didn’t have a good offensive line. Led by First Team FCS All-American Micah Shaw, the unit produced the lone 1,000-yard rusher in the MEAC this season along with having the Aggies finished no less than third in the MEAC in scoring offense, total offense, rushing offense, sacks against, first downs, third and fourth down conversions.
If North Carolina A&T, which gives up 1.18 sacks per game, wants to keep quarterback upright and have a productive offense, they will have to contain an Alcorn defensive front seven. Led by All-SWAC defensive linemen redshirt junior Terry Whittington (14 TFL, 9 sacks), senior Sterling Shippy (13.5 TFL, 8 sacks) and linebacker Solomon Muhammad (8 TFL), this defense leads the nation with 51 total sacks.
Watching the Aggies several times this season, I’ve questioned their disciple, as it pertains to penalties. Getting flagged 99 times this year, 11th worst in the nation, it seemed as though North Carolina A&T would extend drives (or even cut theirs short) with an untimely penalty. Well, the Braves will come into the Celebration Bowl with 109 total penalties, 5th worst in the nation.
Take away their Homecoming loss to Alabama State, where kicker Corey McCullough was 1-for-7 for the day, McCullough is 13-for-15 for the rest of the season.
If not for two missed field goals by sophomore kicker Noel Ruiz, a 43-yarder against Morgan State and a 44-yarder versus Florida A&M, the Aggies just might be undefeated and entering the Celebration Bowl on a 23-game win streak.
Kick to senior wide receiver Malik Wilson if you want to. Averaging 34.5 yards per return, the all-conference return man leads the nation with three kickoff return touchdowns.
Like I said before, there are a lot of similarities between these two teams but there’s one stat that stands out to me, red zone scores. Both teams will put up points at a high percentage once they get inside of their opponent’s twenties — North Carolina A&T at 88%, Alcorn State at 85% — but there is a drop-off for Alcorn when you’re talking about red zone touchdowns.
The Braves will score “six” 66% of the time that their offense enters the red zone, while the Aggies score touchdowns 81% of the time. In a game that has a history of being close, you can not trade field goals for touchdowns.
Prediction: Aggies win, 27-23.