The Aggies win it all at the 2017 Celebration Bowl

Jocelyn Jones

It was the perfect ending to a perfect season. After defeating the Tigers of Grambling State University in the 2017 Celebration Bowl, the Aggies of North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University are named as the 2017 HBCU National Champions.

The game was dominated by defense, as both Grambling and N.C. A&T struggled to find an offensive rhythm throughout the game. On the first drive of the game, the Aggie offense held the ball for a lengthy eight minute drive, but they were unable to score after a missed 48 yard field goal by kicker Noel Ruiz.

The Tigers first drive of the game came after the missed field goal by the Aggies on their own 24 yard line. After they were unable to convert the first down, it was a short three and out. The game remained scoreless at the end of the first quarter, and the second quarter started much like the first with both teams unable to score. On N.C. A&T’s second drive of the quarter, redshirt junior quarterback Lamar Raynard was intercepted at the Tigers 14 yard line by linebacker De’Andre Hogues.

However, on the Tigers first play, the Aggie defense forced a fumble, and it was recovered by sophomore defensive end, Darryl Johnson, which put the ball right back into Raynard’s hands. Five plays later, Raynard connected with junior running back, Marquell Cartwright, for an 11 yard touchdown pass, putting the score at 7-0.

Grambling answered two drives later as senior quarterback, Devante Kincade, threw a 2 yard touchdown to wide receiver, Jordan Jones, to tie the game 7-7. On the Aggies next drive with 0:43 left in the first half, the Aggies moved swiftly down the field and were in field goal territory but were unable to grab the lead after the Tigers defense blocked a 38 yard field goal by Ruiz from the 21 yard line, leaving the score tied 7-7.

The second half started with the Tigers receiving the ball on kickoff. They moved the ball down to the goal line, but freshman standout, cornerback Franklin “Mac” McCain III, intercepted Kincade in the endzone on second and goal, resulting in a touchback.

The Aggies soon answered seven plays later after Cartwright rushed for 29 yards for a touchdown. This gave the Aggies a 14-7 lead for the rest of the third quarter. The Tigers soon responded at the start of the fourth quarter, with a 29 yard touchdown pass from Kincade to running back, Martez Carter. By this time, the score was tied at 14-14.

Three N.C. A&T drives later, with four minutes left in the game, a 33 yard pass from Raynard was intercepted by junior defensive back, Dedrick Shy. However, the Tigers were unable to convert the first down, and the Aggies received the ball back with 1:42 left on the clock.

On the very first play of this drive, Raynard threw an incomplete pass to Cartwright that was then picked up by the Tigers defense. The officials ruled it an incomplete pass on the field, but Grambling head coach,  Lee Fobbs, challenged the ruling as he initially believed it was a fumble. However, after further review by the officiating crew, the ruling of an incomplete pass on the field was confirmed.

A few plays later, Raynard would complete a pass to Cartwright for 19 yards, putting the Aggies on the Grambling 18 yard line. On the very next play, Raynard fake spiked the ball, effectively confusing the Tiger defense, and he threw a 15 yard pass to sophomore wide receiver, Elijah Bell, at the three yard line for first and goal.

After a 2 yard run by Cartwright, on the very next play, Raynard, with a quarterback sneak rushed into the endzone after a second surge by the offensive line for a 1 yard touchdown. Following the attempt for an extra point by Ruiz, the Aggies took the lead at 21-14.

The Tigers got the ball back with 00:38 seconds left in the game, but the N.C. A&T defense held on and got the stop. The game ended after a final incomplete pass by Kincade, who completed 19 of 36 of his passes for 225 yards with two touchdowns and one interception.

Raynard ended the game completing 23 out of 42 of his passes for 225 yards, two touchdowns, and two interceptions. Cartwright, who was named the offensive MVP, finished the game with 110 rushing yards, 54 receiving yards and two touchdowns. McCain was named the defensive MVP, and finished the game with 4 tackles and one interception.

While many expected the Aggies to fall off after the loss of the most dynamic player in N.C. A&T history, current Chicago Bears running back Tarik Cohen, the Aggies did anything but fall off. The Aggies are ranked number 7 in the FCS Coaches Top 25 Poll, and in the STATS FCS Top 25 Poll.

They finished the season 12-0, and they are the first Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference team to ever finish an entire season undefeated. The Aggies are also the first HBCU to finish undefeated and untied on the second level of Division I college football, the Football Championship Subdivision, and they are only one of two teams to finish undefeated in the FCS.

At the press conference following the game, the four players representing N.C. A&T were asked about their favorite moment of the game, and without hesitation, they answered “the last touchdown.” Senior linebacker Jeremy Taylor, who was one of several players that graduated a week before the bowl game, summed up the 2017 season, “Going through this season 12-0, and doing it with the people I love, like my brothers right here, thats the biggest thing. Having those memories, I graduated last week, but I have something to take with me. The memories of winning the national championship with these boys right here.”