Alcorn State head coach Fred McNair answers questions after winning the SWAC championship Anthony Mcdougle, Hattiesburg American
A&T's William Hollingsworth (center) and the rest of the team take the field at BB&T Stadium in Greensboro, N.C. on Saturday, September 8, 2018.(Photo: Khadejeh Nikouyeh/News & Record)
For the second time in the young history of the Celebration Bowl, Alcorn State and North Carolina A&T will clash at noon on Saturday for the de-facto HBCU college football title. Alcorn State (9-3, 6-1 SWAC East) is looking for its first win in the bowl game and a chance to avenge a 41-34 loss to the Aggies in the 2015 Celebration Bowl.
North Carolina A&T (9-2, 6-1 MEAC) is looking for consecutive victories in the bowl game after defeating Grambling State 21-14 last season. The Clarion Ledger asked Greensboro News & Record's N.C. A&T writer Jeff Mills some questions ahead of Saturday's game.
The Clarion Ledger: Statistics indicate that North Carolina A&T’s offense seems to be balanced. What is the emphasis of their offense? The run or the pass?
Jeff Mills: A&T is very balanced on offense. Head coach Sam Washington is old-school and wants to establish the run with power back Marquell Cartwright. New offensive coordinator Chris Barnette was a star quarterback and receiver as a player, and his coaching background is as a quarterbacks coach. With senior Lamar Raynard as the QB, the Aggies are more creative in the passing game.
CL: By now most people who are following this game know how talented the N.C. A&T front seven is. If those guys aren’t able to pressure Noah Johnson, how will the Aggies secondary fare?
JM: Great question. The Aggies lost All-America cornerback Mac McCain with an ACL injury, but freshman Amir McNeil has stepped in and performed well. On the other side, cornerback Timadre Abram is an All-MEAC defender and a fine cover guy. The safeties can run, but are better tacklers than cover guys.
CL: Defense has been the calling card of this Aggies team this year as they allow just 13.5 points per game. However, Alcorn State has shown an ability to put points on the board against anyone. Would N.C. A&T’s offense be equipped to get into a shootout with the Braves?
JM: A&T doesn’t want to be in a shootout with anyone. The Aggies prefer to put the game in the hands of their defense. They’re the best in the nation on third down, and they’ve only allowed four rushing TDs all season. The offense has capable playmakers at the skill positions, but this is a defense-first team.
CL: The Aggies offensive line is about to face a stiff challenge from an Alcorn State defensive front that has 51 sacks this season. How has Lamar Raynard handled being under the type of pressure he is likely to see in the Celebration Bowl?
JM: Raynard’s strength as a quarterback is his decision-making. He’s a veteran guy and smart with the football in his hands. A&T is 34-2 in games he has started in his career, and that’s not an accident. He doesn’t force throws often, and if he’s under pressure he’ll throw the ball away.
CL: These two teams appear evenly matched. What (or who) may everyone be overlooking that could give N.C. A&T an edge?
JM: Special teams. The Aggies spend a lot of time working on the third phase of the game, and it’s been a strength of the program for a long time. They cover kicks well. Freshman punter Michael Rivers has been terrific all season. Kickoff returner Malik Wilson has 98-, 99- and 100-yard TD returns. They’ve struggled some in punt returns compared to years past, but even that group is better than average.