North Carolina A&T kept its date with history Saturday with a dramatic 21-14 victory over Grambling State in the third annual Celebration Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
Senior quarterback Lamar Raynard scored on a one-yard sneak with 38 seconds left in the game to propel North Carolina A&T to the first unbeaten season in the 93-year history of its football program; the win also made the Aggies the first-ever in MEAC team to complete a season unbeaten since the conference was founded in 1971, and it wrapped up the Aggies’ second Black College National Championship in three years and fourth all time.
“Unbelievable,,’’ said Aggies coach Rod Broadway, whose team has been No. 1 in the Black College polls since the second week of the 2017 season. “I’m so proud of these guys and the coaching staff and the job they’ve done. To be 12-0, that’s special — special team, special people. Let’s give Grambling State a lot of credit. That’s a championship football team and a championship football program. We’re excited about the win – national championship, baby.’’
North Carolina A&T, the first unbeaten HBCU since Tuskegee finished the 2007 season 12-0, snapped defending Black College National Champion and 2016 Celebration Bowl winner Grambling’s 11-game winning streak.
“Our thing all season was we were chasing excellence,” said Broadway, who previously won national championships while coaching at North Carolina Central (2005 and ’06) and Grambling (2008). “Well, it was an excellent season. You end up 12-0? I don’t know that you’ll ever see it again in an HBCU, simply because of the money games (against higher-division FBS teams) you have to play every year. That’s why this team is so special.”
The Aggies defeated FBS member Charlotte 35-31 in Week 3.
The Celebration Bowl may well have been the last game of Broadway’s career. His contract is up in June, 2018 after he turned down an extension following the 2016 season, and it was speculated during ABC’s Celebration Bowl broadcast that he will retire. Broadway, 62, has a 59-22 record in seven seasons at North Carolina A&T and has the best winning percentage in school history. His overall record is 127-45 in 15 seasons at North Carolina Central, Grambling and North Carolina A&T.
North Carolina A&T and defending National Champion Grambling were ranked Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, in the Black College polls since Week 4, so it wasn’t surprising that the played to a standoff for the firs 59 minutes of Celebration Bowl III.
Raynard, one of four finalists for the 2017 Black College Football Hall of Fame Player of the Year Award, was masterful on the winning drive. The MEAC Offensive Player of Year was 4-for-5 passing as drove the Aggies 56 yards in seven-plays after they got the ball with 1:42 remaining in the game. He competed 23 of 43 attempts for 225 yards and one touchdown for the day. The Aggies are now 26-0 in games that Raynard has started.
Grambling, the 2016 Celebration Bowl winner and preseason No. among black colleges, had tied the score at 14-all at 14:16 of the fourth quarter when quarterback Devante Kincade, another Black College Player of the Year finalist, and running back Martez Carter teamed up on a 29-yard touchdown pass.
The Aggies missed a golden opportunity to take the lead midway through the fourth quarter. Backup Grambling running back Lyndemian Brooks fumbled at the G’Men’s eight-yard line and Kenneth Melton recovered the ball for North Carolina A&T. However, Grambling’s defense turned the Aggies away with no points. The G-Men stopped Marquell Cartwright twice from the one-yard line and North Carolina A&T gave the ball up on downs.
Cartwright ran for 110 yards and scored a pair of touchdowns en route to being named the game’s Offensive MVP.
North Carolina A&T’s historic victory was born from the Aggies’ opportunism and Grambling’s uncharacteristic inability to win the turnover battle. The G-Men were guilty of three turnovers, the most for them since their 2016 season-opening loss to Arizona. Two of their turnovers led to touchdowns for North Carolina A&T.
Carter coughed the ball up at the G-Men’s 22 following an eight-yard reception, and Darryl Johnson recovered it at the 25 for the Aggies. Raynard converted the miscue into six points when he connected with Cartwright on an 11-yard touchdown pass that put North Carolina A&T ahead 7-0 with 4:58 left in the first half.
The Tigers matched the Aggies’ score with a two-yard touchdown pass from Kincade to tight end Jordan, and the teams went to the locker room tied 7-7.
Another turnover – this time freshman cornerback Mac McCain intercepted a Kincade pass in the end zone on Grambling’s first possession of third quarter – allowed North Carolina A&T to take a 14-7 lead. Cartwright scored the go-ahead touchdown on a 29-yard run that capped an 80-yard drive.
The teams came into the game nearly identical on paper in virtually every statistical category. In the end, North Carolina A&T’s edge was in the offensive line. Anchored by 6-7, 308-pound senior All-American tackle Brandon Parker – a highly regard NFL prospect – that unit enabled the Aggies to dominate in time of possession – North Carolina A&T held the ball for more than 35 minutes to less than 25 for the Tigers after having possession for 11 minutes in the first quarter. The Aggies ran 80 plays from scrimmage compared to 63 for the G-Men. Grambling led the FCS with 47 sacks during the 2017 season, but the Aggies only gave up one.
“This game was about execution,’’ Grambling coach Roderick Fobbs. “If you have two evenly matched teams that are great athletically, and who are playing hard, then it boils down to execution. If you take away 10 plays, that’s the difference. That’s the way it goes in championship football.’’
Kincade, the two-time SWAC Offensive Player of the Year, had a strong performance for the G-Men. The senior, who transferred to Grambling after playing two seasons at Ole Miss, amassed 318 total yards – 225 passing and 93 rushing – in addition passing for both of the G-Men’s touchdowns. His 93 rushing yards led Grambling ball-carriers.
The loss for Grambling was the first to an HBCU since Alcorn State defeated the G-Men in the 2015 SWAC championship game and drops their record to a gaudy 39-11 in Fobbs’ four seasons at the helm.
]“That was a heck of a football game,’’ Fobbs said. “I am very, very proud of our team and our coaching staff with what we have been able to accomplish. It’s been a great, great ride. I take my hat off to North Carolina A&T State and they deserved to win today.’’
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