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Celebration Bowl

NC A&T dominates Alcorn State 64-44 for third straight Celebration Bowl title

QB Kylil Carter and RB Jah-Maine Martin have monster games for Aggies

ATLANTA — As North Carolina A&T quarterback Kylil Carter settled into his seat for the postgame news conference following his team’s wild 64-44 win over Alcorn State in the Celebration Bowl, he carefully laid out a series of massive, shiny and colorful rings.

“This is for 2017 when we were 12-0, this is from the 2018 conference championship, and here’s the 2017 MEAC championship,” Carter said, as he slowly lifted each ring up to display. “I think this is from last year, when we won the national championship.”

Saturday’s win over Alcorn State adds one more ring to the set, but it’s likely those pieces of jewelry will become secondary trinkets to the huge Most Outstanding Offensive Player Award that Carter walked away with following the football performance of his life.

Playing in front of his hometown fans — he grew up in nearby Cobb County — Carter threw a career high six touchdown passes (completing 18 of 30 passes for 364 yards). Four of those touchdown passes were on pass plays of more than 40 yards in a wild game that had the final score looking more like a basketball result.

“I’m a defensive guy, so I don’t like to see that many points or yards,” said North Carolina A&T coach Sam Washington, who has now won two Celebration Bowl titles in as many seasons coaching the Aggies. “It was very entertaining. I’m very proud of my guys; we started strong and finished strong.”

North Carolina A&T receiver Korey Banks catches the first of his two touchdown pass from Kylil Carter, for seven of the Aggies’ 24 points in the quarter.

Kayla MaDonna/ESPN Images

It wasn’t just Carter who came through with big plays for the Aggies. Wide receiver Elijah Bell caught two touchdown passes of 53 and 20 yards. Fellow wideout Korey Banks also had two touchdowns (six catches, 122 yards), including a long scoring play of 73 yards.

And running back Jah-Maine Martin, who had already broken Tarik Cohen’s record for rushing touchdowns, added two more with a long scoring run of 75 yards. He finished the game with 16 rushes for 132 yards.

But the biggest star for the Aggies was Carter, a graduate student who few would have expected to step into a starring role in the team’s biggest game of the season. Carter had played most of his career as the backup to Lamar Raynard, who ended his career last season as the school’s all-time leader in touchdown passes (68). Carter, despite finishing last season as the Aggies’ third leading rusher while playing a backup quarterback role, didn’t even play in last year’s Celebration Bowl after breaking his femur during a Thanksgiving weekend car accident.

“It was difficult sitting on the sidelines last year, but the guys came through,” Carter said. “To come back and be the most outstanding [offensive] player this year, that’s huge.”

N.C. A&T band relishes its moment in Celebration Bowl spotlight

And shocking, considering Carter — at 5 feet, 10 inches and a stocky 230 pounds — looks more like a punishing running back than a big-play quarterback. His biggest success for the Aggies has been handing the ball off to Martin, with the occasional big play connections with Bell in the passing game.

After falling behind (3-0, and later 10-7) in what looked early to be a defensive battle, North Carolina A&T began to open up the team’s offense in the second quarter when the team scored 24 points on three scoring throws from Carter.

Having a career day from Carter wasn’t in the plans going into the game.

“It’s something that kind of presented itself,” Washington said. “We knew they would be aggressive in trying to put an extra guy in the box to stop Jah-Maine. Once we knew which guy was coming, we wanted to come out and counterpunch.”

And that punching continued in the third quarter when the Aggies scored 28 points, but Alcorn State unleashed a bit of offensive power of its own with 21 points as the two teams combined to score 49 points — a game record for a quarter in the Celebration Bowl.

While the Braves’ sudden offense made the game exciting, they were never able to pull closer than 14 points as the Aggies won the Celebration Bowl for the fourth time in five years and now a three-peat.

Might as well call it the Aggie Invitational.

Alcorn State’s De’Shawn Waller runs, helping the Braves jump to a 3-0 first-quarter lead.

Kayla MaDonna/ESPN Images

“Today, there was a lot of joy,” said Washington, who has gone 9-3 in each of his first two seasons as coach — the best two-year start in school history. “There are times throughout the year where it can be taxing. We knew there was a huge reward at the end of the tunnel. This made it worth the journey.”

Perhaps no one had a bigger journey than Carter, who played sparingly as a freshman in 2015 before suffering a season-ending injury in the second game of his sophomore season. For the next two seasons, he was Raynard’s backup, starting just one game but showing a willingness to fill any gaps the Aggies needed to win.

On Saturday, he had a chance to shine in front of a group of family and friends that he was unable to put a number on. “I looked in the stands and there were more than I expected,” Carter said. “Most of my family can’t make it to North Carolina for the games, so it was good to see them here.”

And he rewarded their devotion with, in his final football game, a performance of a lifetime. There have been players in recent years who have walked away from North Carolina A&T with bigger names, but few quarterbacks have had bigger performances on such a grand stage as what Carter demonstrated Saturday while adding one more ring to his collection.

“It’s all about getting rings and championships,” Carter said. “That’s why people come to North Carolina A&T.”

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at Andscape. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright and watching the Knicks play a MEANINGFUL NBA game in June.