GREENSBORO – Technically, the 2017 outright Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference championship belonged to the North Carolina A&T football team at 3:39 p.m., eastern when Hampton defeated Howard.
But who cares about technicalities?
N.C. A&T needed to defeat North Carolina Central after three straight defeats to their No. 1 football nemesis cost them three outright conference titles, a playoff berth in 2014 and a Celebration Bowl bid and an undefeated MEAC season in 2016.
And defeat NCCU is what the Aggies did Saturday evening in a 24-10 win at Aggie Stadium that led to Aggie fans storming the field to celebrate both an undefeated regular season (11-0) and their first undefeated MEAC season (8-0) in 18 years. In the process, the Aggies also captured their first outright title in 14 years. The Aggies, who knew they were headed to the Celebration Bowl last week, will go there with a chance to complete the first-ever undefeated season by a MEAC team since the league started in 1971.
“Being 11-0 is special,” said N.C. A&T coach Rod Broadway. “It was a good win and a good competitive football game. It was a very physical football game. I thought it got to be a dumb football game at times, especially that one drive in the fourth quarter. That was so unlike us to commit that many penalties. That’s not how we play around here, and that’s not how we are going to play. But the guys fought, and I thought they showed a lot of class with the way they fought.”
It was Aggie-Eagle so the game was chippie. The two teams combined for 27 penalties for 217 yards. When the game ended, there were a total of 16 unsportsmanlike penalties, two face masks calls and one roughing the passer. In between the things that make the rivalry so heated, the two premier teams in the conference did showcase why they have been the only two teams to represent the MEAC in the Celebration Bowl since it started in 2015.
It took nearly 21 minutes before either team could score, and it was graduate running back Jamari Smith, playing in his first Aggie-Eagle contest that ignited N.C. A&T’s offense. But it was sophomore Elijah Bell who closed it out with a 13-yard leaping grab over NCCU’s De’Mario Evans for a 7-0 Aggies lead. Smith caught a 20-yard pass and rushed for 28 more to set up the score in which Bell broke the school’s single-season touchdown receptions record with his 11th TD grab of the season. He surpassed former teammate Denzel Keyes (2016) and Craig Thompson (1991).
Smith ended his day with a season-high 99 yards on 14 carries. He also caught two passes for 23 yards. In addition to his record-breaking catch, Bell had four receptions for 82 yards.
NCCU (7-4, 5-3 MEAC) did not get on the scoreboard until the end of the first half. It was set up by a 40-yard run by Isaiah Totten to the N.C. A&T 35-yard line. With time running down, Eagles kicker Aedan Johnson stepped on the field and kicked an Aggie-Stadium record 52-yard field goal to make it a 7-3 halftime score.
““They have a good defense,” said Broadway. “I’ll give them credit, they know how to win. It’s a winning program the last three, four years, and they’ve done an outstanding job. We weren’t playing against some nobodies. I think we were playing on emotion to start with. Once we settled down we started to focus a little bit better and started playing like we’re capable of playing we were okay.”
That type of play started early in the third quarter, a quarter the Aggies dominated. It started with a 25-yard kickoff return by senior Khris Gardin and a 15-yard NCCU unsportsmanlike penalty to give the Aggies the ball at the NCCU 45. Junior quarterback Lamar Raynard then completed a 17-yard pass to Gardin before a completion to Bell appeared to go for a touchdown, but after a replay review, it was determined Bell stepped out of bounds at the 1 for a 23-yard reception. Junior running back Marquell Cartwright put the ball in the end zone for a 14-3 Aggies lead. The Aggies took a 21-3 lead on another 1-yard Cartwright run. All 63 yards on the drive came on the ground as the Aggies compiled 205 yards rushing for the game.
“We really committed to the run today,” said Raynard. The o-line blocked very well, the receivers blocked downfield and our running backs took advantage of what was there. To throw the ball effectively you have to run the ball, so that’s what we did.”
The Eagles did try to make it interesting late in the third quarter. Aided by four N.C. A&T penalties – three unsportsmanlike and one face mask – the Eagles scored on a three-yard touchdown by Totten to cut N.C. A&T’s lead to 21-10.
N.C. A&T gave the Eagles nothing else the rest of the game. NCCU compiled only seven yards of offense the rest of the game. Bell put the game away with an unbelievable one-hand catch in which he extended his right arm on a ball that was slightly overthrown to secure it for a 38-yard reception. It led to a 31-yard field goal from Noel Ruiz to give the Aggies a 24-10 advantage with 7:10 to play.
“It is joy and relief,” said senior rover Jeremy Taylor about beating NCCU. “They have beaten us three years back-to-back-to-back, so finally for us to come out on top on our last go around, feels great. That’s the joy. After three years, there’s a new sheriff in town.”
Taylor was one of 19 seniors honored before the game. He joined linebacker Marcus Albert, right guard Daquan Blake, wide receiver Jaquil Capel, punter Dominic Frescura, wide receiver Caleb Gabriel, wide receiver/return specialist Khris Gardin, center Darriel Mack, right tackle Christian Marshall, left guard Joshua Mattocks, defensive back Tard McCoy, left tackle Brandon Parker, punter/holder Garrett Nestor, rover David Pulliam, tight end Trey Scott, running back Jamari Smith, Taylor and defensive back Taylor Wilson as players who played their final game at Aggie Stadium on Saturday.
There is one more game to play for them, however. The Aggies were officially invited to the 2017 Celebration Bowl after the game. The game will be played live on ABC, Saturday, Dec. 16 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta at noon.
“To end the regular-season season 11-0 I think says a lot about our coaching staff and the job they have done,” said Broadway. “I think we have a great coaching staff and of course we have some great players. One thing about coaching is you don’t have time to enjoy it as its happening.
Once it’s over, you get a chance to look back and enjoy it a little bit more. Normally, we have a game next week, so let’ move on, go home and get a cigar so we can get ready for tomorrow because you have to start working on the next game. But this time we get to stay home tomorrow, so it may give me a chance to reflect on 11-0. I’m going lay around a watch football all day tomorrow.”