Marquell Cartwright had 164 total yards on 23 touches and two scores to lead North Carolina A&T to a 2nd HBCU National Championship in three years. At Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta, North Carolina A&T sneaks it in for a 21-14 victory in the 3rd annual Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl over the Grambling State Tigers. Lamar Raynard scored from a yard out with :38 remaining to break a deadlock that had set in all day long. It was a display of dominant defense by the two HBCU powers for most of the game, but the Aggies prevailed in the end due to a field position advantage.
Opportunities Squandered in First Half
The Aggies controlled the ball in the first half. Their first drive ended in a badly missed 41-yard field goal by Noel Ruiz. In fact, each of the first four Aggie drives ventured into Grambling territory, with none of them resulting in points. The reasons were myriad: poor throws by Raynard on third downs, interceptions, and pre-snap penalties. Ultimately, despite their dominance, the Aggies ended the first quarter in a 0-0 game.
The Tigers offense was completely ineffective, with Devante Kincade’s ability to extend plays going largely to waste. Jamaal Darden of the Aggies forced a fumble that finally resulted in points. The Aggies took over at the 25-yard line, and then Cartwright took a dumpoff into the end zone for an 11-yard score.
With 2:45 remaining, the G-Men found some offensive momentum. Quick snaps and Kincade’s tremendous elusiveness came to the forefront. He accounted for all 70 yards on the 8-play touchdown drive. It ended with a 2-yard pass to Jordan Jones to tie the game at 7 with :43 remaining in the half.
The Aggies had a chance to retake the lead at the end of the half. Throws to Cartwright and Elijah Bell moved the ball down to Grambling’s 21-yard line. Unfortunately for the Aggies, Ruiz’s low trajectory of kick resulted in an easily blocked field goal. The teams went into the locker room tied at 7, but the Tigers had all the momentum.
Sloppy Third Quarter Continues Deadlock
After the excitement of the two marching bands at halftime, Grambling State got the kickoff. They drove the ball with the same pace and momentum as they had at the end of the first half, but Kincade made a fatal mistake. On 2nd-and-goal from the 7, Franklin Mackenzie III simply ran Quintin Guice’s route better than he did, but Kincade threw the ball anyway. Mackenzie easily made the interception in the end zone.
The Aggies took the ball and handed it to Marquell Cartwright. He obliged, with a runs of 18 and 29 on a dominant touchdown drive. The time of possession advantage seemed to be a factor here. Cartwright ran left behind future NFL tackle Brandon Parker, and was able to break tackles in the second level to score.
Both teams made presnap mistakes in the following drives, calling timeouts to avoid delay of game penalties. Grambling was able to overcome two illegal procedure penalties on their eventual touchdown drive. Kincade escaped again and found Marquise Kaigler for 22 yards on 3rd-and-15. After he ran for 25 yards, Kincade used his patience to find a streaking Martez Carter out of the backfield for a 29-yard touchdown.
The Final Push
North Carolina A&T forced a fumble and took over at Grambling State’s 8-yard line with 9:52 remaining. What followed was a four-play, seven-yard, two-timeout, zero-point drive. That was not a misprint. Cartwright ran for six yards to get to the 2, and then Grambling called a timeout before 3rd down defensively. Cartwright got a yard to get it to 4th-and-goal at the 1, where the Aggies called a timeout to ponder their decision. They sent the offense out, and Cartwright was stuffed. Much ado about nothing- Grambling took over at their own 1.
Kincade and the Tigers converted a long third down, and nearly converted another. On 3rd-and-9 from the 24, Kincade escaped six-man pressure and floated a pass that Jordan Jones caught two yards shy of the first down marker.
When the Aggies got the ball back, Raynard forced the ball downfield on a 3rd and 9 where it was intercepted at the Grambling 13-yard line. It functioned as a decent punt, as the field stayed titled against the Tigers. They played it conservatively, trying to survive for overtime, and going 3-and-out.
Aggies Sneak It In
The Aggies took over at their own 44. On 1st down, Cartwright dropped a dumpoff, but it initially looked like a fumble recovered by Grambling. In hindsight, this may have been the last stand of an exhausted Tigers defense. Raynard sprayed the ball around, throwing three passes of at least 15 yards to three different receivers on consecutive downs, putting the ball at the 3-yard line. After Cartwright got it to the 1, the Aggies lined up quickly, and Raynard plunged it in.
Grambling’s final hail mary fell incomplete, and the Aggies were crowned champions of the Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl. HBCU football was the real winner though, with an exciting game between two of the best teams of recent HBCU vintage. The marching bands were fantastic, the crowds were loud, and the teams made them proud. North Carolina A&T 21-14, deserving HBCU National Champions of 2017!