Grambling State 10, North Carolina Central 9
It’s quite ironic that the 2nd annual Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl Saturday in Atlanta to determine the 2016 black college football national champion would come down to a celebration.
But that’s exactly what made the difference in a dramatic 10-9 victory for SWAC champion Grambling State over MEAC champion North Carolina Central in a hardfought game Saturday at the Georgia Dome pitting the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in HBCU football.
NCCU (9-3), who shut out the high-scoring Grambling offense in the first half and led 3-0 at the break, was trailing 10-3 late in the fourth quarter when quarterback Malcolm Bell rolled left and lofted a 39-yard strike to senior wideout Quentin Atkinson in the back of the end zone to pull the Eagles within 10-9 with just 2:14 to play.
In the ensuing celebration however, Atkinson removed his helmet and was flagged 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct. Grambling head coach Broderick Fobbs chose to have the penalty assessed on the point-after, forcing NCCU placekicker Brandon McLaren to try his attempt from the 34-yard line. Grambling’s Joseph McWilliams got around the right side of the Eagles line and stuffed the attempt leaving Grambling with the one-point advantage.
NCCU recovered an onside kick following the PAT but was called offsides on the play. A second onside attempt was recovered by Grambling’s Chad Williams with 2:12 left. After NCCU burned its final timeout, Grambling faced a 3rd-and-12 from the Eagles’ 44, but quarterback Devante Kincade hit Verlan Hunter in the left flat and he ran by two defenders for the first down. Grambling was able to kneel down to run out the clock.
The win gives Grambling the 2016 black college national title, just three years after back-to-back one-win seasons had the most storied program in black college football in the doldrums. Fobbs has engineered the turnaround getting the G-Men back to the pinnacle in just his third year on the job.
What many thought would be a high-scoring game pitting the two champions turned into a defensive struggle with neither team able throw offensive haymakers. The closest thing to splash plays came from exciting Grambling running back/kick returner Martez Carter, who had runs of 35 and 32 yards and 69 yards in returns. He finished the day with 109 rushing yards on 12 carries and 201 all-purpose yards to earn the game’s offensive MVP award.
Grambling (11-1), who came in averaging 500 yards and 44 points per game, was held to 345 yards and just one touchdown by the game NCCU defense. But that touchdown proved critical as it came on the Tigers’ first possession of the second half and gave them their first score and lead of the game.
After stopping the Eagles on a 3-and-out to start the third quarter, Grambling rode power back Jestin Kelly’s running to begin an 8-play, 70-yard drive that was capped by a weaving 32-yard scoring scamper from the elusive Carter. Jonathan Wallace’s PAT put Grambling up 7-3 with 9:14 left in the quarter.
Two NCCU possessions later, Grambling got the ball back when linebacker Arkez Cooper got a strip sack of Bell at the Eagles’ 25. The NCCU defense kept Grambling out of the end zone but Wallace was good on a 26-yard field goal to give the Tigers a 10-3 lead with 2:50 left in the third quarter.
Grambling had another chance to pad its lead after Carter returned a fourth-quarter punt 30 yards to the NCCU 11. But on 4th-and-goal at the NCCU 2, Fobbs eschewed a chip shot field goal choosing to run Kelly up the gut for a touchdown. Kelly was stuffed by the Eagles’ line turning the ball over on downs.
Two possessions later, NCCU got a 46-yard pass from Bell to LaVontis Smith that carried into Grambling territory. That drive was halted when defensive back Jameel Jackson picked off Bell at the Grambling 40.
On its next possession, NCCU began its drive at their own 41 after a 24-yard punt from Wallace. Bell hit Jalen Wilkes for 15 yards before hitting Atkinson with the score that could have been the equalizer.
Grambling had taken the opening kickoff and driven to the NCCU 42 before Kincade was picked off by defensive back Alden McClellan in the end zone. The Eagles got the only first-half points on the ensuing drive as they drove 74 yards in 13 plays to score on McLaren’s 23-yard field goal. Grambling responded with a drive that carried to the NCCU 13 but Wallace was wide left on a 30-yard field goal attempt.
Kincade, the SWAC offensive player of the year, was constantly forced to scramble by the penetrating Eagles defense but finished 15 of 31 for 149 passing yards and ran for 20 yards on 12 carries. He was sacked twice. Kelly ran for 65 yards on 17 carries. Hunter led the GMen receivers with four catches for 35 yards. Cooper led the Grambling defense with six stops, three solos including the sack. Jackson had five solo stops and an interception to earn the defensive MVP award.
Grambling held the Eagles to just 55 rushing yards and 310 total yards. Bell was sacked three times and led the Eagles with just 31 yards on 13 carries. He was 18 of 32 passing for 240 yards and two picks. Smith had four catches for 82 yards to lead Eagle receivers. Linebacker Reggie Hunter led NCCU with 11 tackles, six solos.