Perfect seasons don’t come around every year so the North Carolina A&T Aggies did the most defeating the Grambling State Tigers 21-14 to win the first bowl championship ever hosted by the Atlanta Mercedes Benz Stadium.

Eleven years ago the Aggies edged the Tigers by 5 points to come within a game of tying the series record. They missed their chance to face the Tigers last year due to a conference loss to arch-rival North Carolina Central. The Eagles missed out on their opportunity to be known as champion losing to the Tigers 9-10. The result provided a perfect backdrop for Saturday’s Celebration Bowl. Not only did the game feature the champions of the MEAC and SWAC but the first two Celebration Bowl certified Black College Football Champions. Call it the BCFC.

It truly was a “Battle of Champions” as the Tigers and Aggies took turns delivering clutch offensive and defensive plays that brought the crowd to their feet. After over a quarter and a half of back and forth, the Aggies finally struck gold. A pair of turnovers forced by both teams created the opportunity.

Grambling outside linebacker De’Andre Hogues ended a promising drive by the Aggies with a sliding interception of Lamar Raynard’s pass intended for wide receiver Khris Gardin at the 14-yard line. The Tigers possession lasted all of one play. Devante Kincade’s pass to Martez Carter gained eight yards before Aggies rover Jamaal Darden ripped the ball from the running back’s clutches.

Raynard learned from his mistake on the last possession. The red-shirt junior dumped it off to childhood friend and running back Marquell Cartwright who weaved his way through the defense for a touchdown. Cartwright caught three passes for 54 yards on the day.

The Tigers answered two drives later. Kincade lit the fuse with a 21-yard completion to Kobe Ross at midfield. Grambling’s elusive quarterback accounted for 29 yards on the drive with two dazzling running display. “He’s slippery,” attested North Carolina A&T head coach Rod Broadway. Kincade’s second run set up the two-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jordan Jones.

Devante Kincade's pass sails over the head of Martez Carter in the final 8 seconds of the 2017 Celebration Bowl.

Devante Kincade’s pass sails over the head of Martez Carter in the final 8 seconds of the 2017 Celebration Bowl.

A second turnover by the Tigers erased a potential scoring drive at the top of the third. Defensive back Franklin McCain picked off Kincade in the end zone. “He had a tight split, so I kinda knew he was gonna run an out,” said McCain. “I pretty much ran an out for him and made the play.” The interception turned into a seven as the Aggies rode the wave of momentum 80 yards for the go-ahead touchdown. Cartwright, the game’s most valuable offensive player, rushed for 47 yards on the drive including a 29-yard touchdown jaunt.

It took a few drives before the Tigers were able to answer the Aggies score. Once again it was the arm and legs of Kincade keeping the offense moving. “One of the things we wanted to do in the game is not let him beat us with his feet,” said Broadway. “He kept a lot of drives alive with his feet. We had some chances to hit him and we just missed a few times. One of those times Kincade got loose for a 25 yard gain to the NC A&T 29. Carter answered for his earlier fumble with a 29-yard touchdown on the very next play.

The last two minutes of the game saw the Aggies offense move the ball 56 yards for the go-ahead score. Raynard completed three passes to three different receivers for 53 yards. After getting stuffed on four downs inside the 10-yard line and two missed field goals, Broadway and his staff were confronted with a decision. “I told the team on the last drive, this is how championships are won,” said Broadway. On the second down inside the five, the Aggies offensive line got the push Raynard needed to stick the ball across the goal line for a 21-14 lead.

The Aggies left 38 seconds on the clock and the Tigers staring at an end zone 59 yards away. Kincade managed to move the ball 20 yards but the Aggies defense was more than up to the challenge. “I thought their D-line was more dominant against our O-line than our D-line was against their O-line,” explained Grambling head coach Broderick Fobbs. The pass rush forced Kincade to get the ball out quicker and the secondary never allowed any receiver to get beyond them deep. On third and nine and 8 seconds remaining Kincade’s pass to Carter was well-defended sealing the win and the championship for the Aggies.

Let the Bands Play, In Other Words, Let us Be Us

Saturday’s game was every bit as exciting as the first two Celebration Bowls. The only thing lacking about the game was ESPN’s ridiculous decision to quiet two of the finest marching bands in the nation. During the season, HBCU marching bands play at every break throughout the game. Music from the bands in the stands is an important cultural thread of the HBCU football tapestry. The music keeps the crowd energized during timeouts and breaks in the game. More than anything fans look forward to the bands’ musical performances in and outside of halftime. Its absence was more than noticeable.

What was exceedingly troubling is the mandate on Grambling and North Carolina A&T that was not issued to Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia Tech, or Florida State in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff games that opened the stadium in September. It wasn’t until the fourth quarter that the two bands were allowed to play during breaks in the action.

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All photos by Jason McDonald, CORE360 Sports