ATLANTA, Ga. – The similarities between SWAC Champion Grambling State and MEAC Champion North Carolina A&T were striking.
In a matchup of the first and last two Celebration Bowl and HBCU National Champions, each team entered riding 11-game winning streaks and featured not only the most All-Conference nods but also each featured the Offensive Players of the Year in the Tigers’ Devante Kincade and the Aggies’ Lamar Raynard.
Marked by stubborn defensive efforts from each team, turnovers and an unstained drive proved to be a major factor in setting up scoring opportunities.
Grambling State’s third turnover of the day proved costly where they fumbled it away on their own eight-yard line after a bad handoff with 9:54 left in the game.
The Tigers (11-2) would get it back on an interception by Dederick Shy way back on the Grambling own 15- yard line.
A three-and-out by the Tigers gave the ball back to the Aggies on their own 40-yard line where Raynard would guide a game-winning drive on three big passes and a quarterback sneak from himself to put up NCA&T up for good with 38 ticks remaining as North Carolina A&T would claim its second Celebration Bowl championship in three years with a 21-14 win against Grambling State at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
North Carolina A&T scored late to beat Grambling in the Celebration Bowl and finish 12-0, the first MEAC team to ever have a perfect season. pic.twitter.com/ZeiikrJwHe
— ESPN (@espn) December 16, 2017
Aggies running back Marquell Cartwright earned the Celebration Bowl Offensive Player of the Game award after rushing 20 times for 113 yards with a rushing touchdown and also caught three balls for 54 yards with a receiving touchdown.
Raynard completed 23-of-43 passes for 225 yards with one passing touchdown and also rushed in the winning score to go along with 17 rushing yards.
Kincade completed 19-of-36 passes for 225 yards with two passing touchdowns and also rushed 16 times for a team-high 93 yards. De’Arius Christmas had a team-high eight tackles.
The back-and-forth flow was constant throughout the game.
With the Aggies (12-0) driving into the red zone, the Tigers’ DeAndre Hogues intercepted a pass to give Grambling State hope. However, the very next play was fumbled away, giving NCA&T prime field position to punch it on a Cartwright 11-yard touchdown pass from Raynard to open the scoring with 4:58 remaining in the second quarter.
Grambling State answered with 43 seconds left in the first half when a wide-open Jordan Jones caught a two-yard touchdown toss from Kincade after an eight-play, 70-yard drive. Kincade’s feet and a 21-yard pass to Kobe Ross were among the key plays on the drive.
North Carolina A&T missed a couple of golden opportunities, failing to convert on a field goal attempt that came up short with 6:58 left in the first quarter and then had a field goal blocked by the Tigers’ defense.
The Aggies took advantage of a huge interception in the end zone by Mac McCain which set up NCA&T on their own 20-yard line. North Carolina A&T took the ball nearly the length of the field, orchestrating a seven- play, 80-yard drive capped by a Cartwright 29-yard run with 7:36 left in the third quarter to put the Aggies up 14-7 after the PAT by Noel Ruiz.
Grambling State had plenty of fight left in them, however, as the Tigers marched back down the field on a couple of Kincade passes, a 25-yard Kincade run and a catch-and-run touchdown by Martez Carter.