There was a lot of history between the Grambling State Tigers and North Carolina A&T Aggies as they squared off in the Celebration Bowl. Both teams had won the game since its inception in 2015. The game lived up to its hype as the Aggies prevailed 21-14 with a fourth-quarter scoring drive and secured their fourth HBCU national title.
Here are five observations from the Celebration Bowl on Saturday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium:
North Carolina A&T became the first MEAC and HBCU school to finish undefeated and untied.
The Aggies also broke the school record with 12 wins in a season, capping it with their second Celebration Bowl victory.
It is also unique as Aggies coach Rod Broadway coached at Grambling from 2007-2010. He is 57-22 at North Carolina A&T. The Aggies finish the season with wins over three conferences — the SWAC, MEAC, and American Athletic.
The Aggies gained 397 yards of offense and held a tough Tigers offense in check. Only Tulane, of the FBS, has done that to Grambling this season.
“The season was great as 12-0 is something that most teams don’t do,” senior linebacker Jeremy Taylor said. “It is a great feeling and we are blessed to be here.”
With a 1:42 left in the fourth quarter, Aggies junior quarterback Lamar Raynard orchestrated a seven-play, 56-yard touchdown drive to give the Aggies the lead. He was 3-for-5 on the drive with each completion totaling 15 or more yards. This helped set up North Carolina A&T with the ball inside the Grambling 5-yard line.
He scored two plays later on a quarterback sneak. It was only his fourth touchdown of the season.
Raynard completed 23-for-43 for 225 yards. He also had a passing touchdown in the first half. The Aggies are 26-0 in games with Raynard under center.
“Raynard has a lot of natural ability and his knowledge has gotten better with coaching and him putting the time in the film room,” Broadway said. “He is learning schemes defensively and getting the ball out of his hands. (Quarterbacks) Coach (Chris) Barnette deserves a lot of credit for that.”
Grambling squandered early scoring chances with turnovers. On both occasions, the turnovers ended an opportunity to take the lead. The first turnover was a fumble by senior running back Martez Carter late in the second quarter. His fumble set up the Aggies’ first touchdown.
The second turnover was just as detrimental. After the Tigers drove the length of the field to start the third quarter, Devante Kincade threw an ill-advised pass, and it was intercepted in the end zone by Franklin McCain III.
North Carolina A&T took advantage, driving 80 yards in seven plays. Marquell Cartwright scored on a run from 29 yards.
The turnovers were unusual for Grambling; the Tigers had just 10 turnovers in the regular season. The three mistakes ultimately cost them a chance at back-to-back HBCU titles.
“It boiled down to execution and they made one more play than we did,” Grambling coach Broderick Fobbs said. “We turned the ball over. It’s about execution of eight to 10 plays and that is the way championship games are.”
Slow out the gate
The high-scoring affair that many people were expecting got off to a slow start. Neither team could find an offensive rhythm and struggled in the first half. The Aggies held the time of possession edge, but couldn’t take advantage. They spent most the first quarter in Grambling territory and didn’t score.
Grambling struggled on offense as well. The Tigers were stymied by a tough Aggies’ defensive front seven and mustered 114 yards of offense in the first half. Kincade was under constant pressure and missed open receivers.
After 25 minutes, North Carolina A&T finally broke through with a 11-yard touchdown pass from Raynard to Cartwright. Grambling answered with a 2-yard touchdown pass to sophomore tight end Jordan James.
The game was tied at 7 at the half.
Late in the fourth quarter, the Tigers’ defense kept the game tied at 14 with an impressive goal-line stand. The Aggies were driving in the red zone following a third turnover from the Tigers’ offense.
With the ball at the 1, Grambling forced a turnover on downs and kept North Carolina A&T out of the end zone. They stood tall and stuffed Cartwright on two consecutive runs to keep the game in reach.
Ultimately, the defensive stop wasn’t enough to overcome the Aggies late game-winning drive.
“We got in the right position and made a couple plays,” Grambling junior linebacker De’Arius Christmas said. “They (North Carolina A&T) just made a couple of plays at the end.”