The 2017 Celebration Bowl must have felt like deja vu all over again for North Carolina A&T quarterback Lamar Raynard and running back Marquell Cartwright. Four years ago, when Cartwright and Raynard were at High Point Andrews, this same situation played out.
Raynard, who threw a 38-yard touchdown pass with 1:02 remaining for his high school’s North Carolina High School Athletic Association 2-AA title game, ran the ball in from 1 yard out to give the Aggies a 21-14 win over Grambling State on Saturday.
While Cartwright, who was awarded MVP honors in that state title game, won the Celebration Bowl’s Offensive Player of the Game award thanks to one rushing touchdown, one passing touchdown and 110 yards on the ground.
“We started together playing together in ninth grade,” Raynard said. “We decided to come to college together because we thought that we could do really great together. I just want to tip my hat to this guy, because they really tried to take the game away from my boy, and he came back and fought even harder. People who doubted him they said after Tariq left, we weren’t going to have a running game. … This guy right here, that’s my brother. We stay right down the street from each other. It’s a lot I could say. I’m going to keep it short, but I love him.”
It’s official. North Carolina A&T is no longer up-and-coming. The Aggies are a certified college football name brand. And they’re not taking a back seat to anybody. Anymore. Ever.
They came into Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium looking for respect as they prepared to battle the perennial historically black college football powerhouse Grambling. Now N.C. A&T will be heading back to Greensboro, North Carolina, as the Celebration Bowl champion for the second time in three years.
Raynard, the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) Offensive Player of the Year, was responsible for two more touchdowns in the Celebration Bowl, bringing his season total to 31 with multiple touchdowns in 10 of 12 games this season.
In winning the third annual Celebration Bowl and historically black college and university (HBCU) national championship, the Aggies also became the first MEAC football team to finish its season undefeated at 12-0. N.C. A&T did it twice before, but that was before the creation of the MEAC.
While Raynard scored the points that would ultimately put the team over the hump in a game they led from start to finish, it was Cartwright who carried N.C. A&T for much of the game. His receiving touchdown opened up the scoring and his touchdown on the ground were the only two scores the team had until 38 seconds remained in the game and Raynard found the end zone.
Grambling coach Broderick Fobbs must not have known how wise and insightful his answer was when he explained that the Tigers and N.C. A&T are essentially mirrors of each other’s program.
“I really didn’t [have any doubts.] I didn’t get very nervous today,” N.C. A&T coach Rod Broadway said. “I knew we was playing an outstanding football team, but I also knew we had an outstanding football team. We could’ve separated a little bit, if we had been a little bit better in the kicking game.”
Anything the Aggies did, Grambling State did almost the same thing and vice versa. The Tigers bench erupted when N.C. A&T’s Raynard threw an interception to Grambling’s De’Andre Hogues as the Aggies began to sniff Grambling’s red zone.
That euphoria lasted maybe a minute at most, as Tigers running back Martez Carter coughed up the ball following an eight-yard reception and N.C. A&T went right back into business from the Grambling 25. Five plays later and with 4:58 left in the half, fans at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium finally saw their first score of the game.
Three minutes and 15 seconds later, Fobbs’ team finally got itself on the board thanks to Kincade finding Jordan Jones for a two-yard touchdown pass to tie it up just before the half.
The Aggies worked themselves down the field with 2 seconds to spare for a field goal attempt, but the Grambling front blocked the kick. Similarly, the Tigers made their way into the Aggies red zone on their first drive of the second half, but a poorly placed Kincade pass was intercepted by Franklin McCain III in spectacular, one-hand, one-toe inbounds fashion.
The one thing both teams stressed was that the team who made the fewest mistakes was going to win the game. While Grambling finished with three turnovers, N.C. A&T ended the game with two, and a pair of missed field goals.
What this game truly came down to was who was going to make the most of the opportunities afforded to them, and without question that was the Aggies. One doesn’t have to love the Aggies. They don’t even care if y’all like them.
However, after this Celebration Bowl victory, y’all will respect them.
N.C. A&T had more success running between the tackles Saturday, averaging 2.3 yards before contact per rush. The Aggies’ Cartwright had more yards between the tackles (57) than Grambling had as a team.
Designed rushes inside tackles
GRAMBLING … N.C. A&T
Rushes 13 … 25
Yards 44 … 87
YBC per rush 0.9 … 2.3
Touchdowns 0 … 2
Grambling committed three turnovers Saturday, allowing 14 points off those turnovers. The Tigers entered the game having committed 10 turnovers all season, tied for third-fewest in the FCS.
GRAMBLING N.C. A&T
Turnovers 3 … 2
Opp Pts off TOs 14 … 0
N.C. A&T averages 10.6 points a game off turnovers