'So many positives'

Citadel running back Jake Stenson of the American team is hit by the National's Keenan Lambert (Norfolk State) during the Medal of Honor Bowl on Saturday at Johnson Hagood Stadium.

Tommy McQueeney's goal is for the Medal of Honor Bowl to become "a permanent part of the landscape of football in America."

The Medal of Honor Bowl's chairman said the college football all-star game took a big step in that direction on a sparkling Saturday at Johnson Hagood Stadium. A crowd of 12,578 fans - more than double the attendance for last year's inaugural game - saw Miami quarterback Ryan Williams lead the National team to a 26-14 win over the American squad.

The game also was televised nationally for the first time, on the NBC Sports Network. McQueeney is hopeful that the show the Medal of Honor Bowl put on Saturday was good enough to warrant a long-term deal with NBC Sports or another network.

"When you figure that we doubled our fan support (from 5,135 spectators in 2014) and had more than a hundred percent increase in sponsors, I think we are well on our way towards that goal," McQueeney said. "The two elements that will help us going forward is that we had more scouts than they'll have at some other all-star games, and more fans than they'll have at most of them."

More than 120 pro scouts attended practices throughout the week, and on Saturday saw the 6-foot-6 Williams hit 7 of 15 passes for 115 yards and a touchdown, an 11-yard scoring pass to South Carolina standout Damiere Byrd. Williams, who missed his senior season with a knee injury at Miami, was named the National team MVP.

National team coach Chan Gailey, a veteran of NFL stints with the Cowboys and Bills and former head coach at Georgia Tech, said the game's tie-in with Medal of Honor Bowl recipients gives it an extra layer of meaning. Fifteen Medal of Honor Bowl recipients were recognized before the game.

"For me and most of our coaches, that's why we want to be involved," Gailey said. "There's no reason this game can't be a long-term success. The support of the Charleston area, the great weather, there are so many positives, I don't see why it can't be."

The day was certainly special for linebacker Michael Gruber of Brevard College and Dorchester Academy. The Division II All-American got to play alongside players from big-name schools in front of about 300 friends and family. He made two tackles - and his stepfather, Nate Bristow of Walterboro, was the winner of a free Mercedes-Benz given away by the Baker Motor Company.

"It was great to be able to get out here and play with some of the top-caliber players from across America," Gruber said. "With me coming from a Division II school, it meant a lot to me to show that I can play with these guys. And the brotherhood over the week, meeting all these guys, that was special for me."

Among other local players, running back Jake Stenson of The Citadel carried four times for 20 yards for the American team, while fellow Bulldog Justin Oxendine had two tackles and a tackle for loss at defensive end. He also broke up a pass and had a quarterback hurry.

Charleston Southern linebacker Gabriel Middlebrook also had two tackles, as did former Citadel All-American Mike Sellers, who played H-back, tight end and linebacker.

Palmetto State players made an impact. Gamecock defensive back Brison Sellers picked off a pass and returned it 52 yards for a score, and Coastal Carolina linebacker Quinn Backus also had a pick six. He returned his interception 87 yards for a touchdown and was named the American team MVP.

Air Force kicker Will Conant made four field goals for the National team. Quarterback Chris Bonner, the 6-7, 225-pounder from Colorado State-Pueblo, was 4 of 5 for 44 yards while leading the American team to a TD on its first series. But he suffered a sprained thumb and did not play after that.

Duke's Isaac Blakeney was the top receiver with five catches for 103 yards, and running back Brandon Wegher from NAIA Morningside was the top rusher with 90 yards on 14 carries. Defensive end Shaq Riddick of West Virginia had two sacks, and linebacker Serderius Bryant of Ole Miss had two tackles for loss for the National team.