GREENSBORO — It's bowl week for N.C. A&T football, and the Aggies will travel to Atlanta on Wednesday for the preliminary activities leading up to Saturday's Celebration Bowl.
And a worthy opponent awaits.
No. 11 A&T (9-2) will play Alcorn State (9-3) in the Celebration Bowl at noon Saturday at the Atlanta Falcons' home, Mercedes-Benz Stadium. It's a matchup of the MEAC and SWAC champions, a de facto black college football championship game.
Five things to know about Alcorn State:
1. The quarterback
SWAC player of the year Noah Johnson is among the finalists for the Walter Payton Award (FCS player of the year) and Deacon Jones Trophy (HBCU player of the year). He's earned it. Johnson is a dual-threat quarterback, a guy who has passed for 2,079 yards and 15 touchdowns and ranks No. 10 in the nation with a 64.1 completion percentage. But he's even more dangerous with his feet, rushing for 960 yards and nine touchdowns. His 7.38 yards per carry average ranks No. 4 in the nation.
2. The running back
De'Shawn Waller, a 5-foot-11, 210-pound junior, won the starting job at running back at midseason and has put up big numbers. Waller, a transfer from Hutchinson Community College, was the SWAC's rookie of the year after rushing for 1,048 yards and 12 TDs. The Atlanta native has gone over 100 yards rushing in six of his last seven games, including 177 yards and three TDs in the SWAC Championship game.
3. The offensive line
Any team that runs the ball as well as Alcorn State, which ranks No. 8 among the 124 FCS teams in the nation with 282.3 rushing yards per game and 30 rushing TDs, starts up front. The Braves have used the same five starting offensive linemen in 10 of their 12 games this season, including the last seven. The only senior in the group is 6-foot-5, 303-pound left tackle Chris McCrea, who has started every game. But it's a veteran group, as the other four starters are all juniors: left guard Deonte Brooks (6-4, 291), center Mustaffa Ibrahim (6-2, 292), right guard Darius Davis (6-4, 317) and right tackle Kevin Hall (6-6, 290). And yeah, they're big, averaging just over 6-4 and 298 pounds.
4. The defense
Alcorn State leads the nation in sacks (51) and tackles for loss (111). To put that in perspective, that's 27 more sacks and 30 more tackles for loss than A&T's fine defense. Linebacker/safety Qwynnterrio Cole, who has come off the bench in eight of the Braves' 12 games, leads the team with 68 tackles. Nose tackle Sterling Shippy, a 6-1, 300-pound senior, is the defensive captain, and he has made 13½ of his 35 tackles in the backfield, including eight sacks.
5. Special teams
If A&T has a distinct edge, it could be in the kicking game. The Aggies rank No. 2 in the nation in kickoff returns, averaging 29.6 yards, and senior Malik Wilson has three touchdowns (98, 99 and 100 yards). Alcorn, meanwhile, ranks No. 116 of 124 with an average of just 16.6 yards and no TDs. Junior Corey McCullough does double duty as the Braves’ kicker and punter. He averages 39.7 yards per punt and hasn’t had a punt blocked. As a kicker, he is 14-for-22 on field-goal attempts with a long of 46 yards, but he missed six kicks in the Braves’ homecoming loss, including a 28-yarder at the end of regulation that would’ve won the game.