Grambling, NCCU meet to decide HBCU national champion

BOXTOROW National Game of the Week
North Carolina Central (9-2) vs. Grambling (10-1)

When North Carolina Central and Grambling meet Saturday in the 2nd Celebration Bowl – pitting the MEAC and SWAC champions – at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, the HBCU national championship will be on the line.

While there is no true HBCU national championship game, both the Eagles and Tigers are ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the SBN and BOXTOROW polls.

The Celebration Bowl is at least a step closer towards a Division I HBCU national championship game.  Prior to last season, the MEAC decided to give up its automatic bid to the FCS playoffs in order to participate in the game with the hopes of still receiving an at-large berth to the playoffs.  Both NCCU and Bethune-Cookman, who were co-champions of the MEAC with North Carolina A&T last year, were both deserving, but neither received a bid.

N.C. A&T lost to the Eagles in what amounted to the MEAC championship game 42-21 on November 19, but still received an at-large berth to the playoffs.

Tennessee State is the only Division I HBCU that is a not a member of the MEAC or SWAC and would have to be involved to have a true national championship game.

NCCU and Grambling met in the first ever Pelican Bowl at Duke’s Wallace Wade Stadium on December 2, 1972 with the Tigers winning 56-6 and being crowned Black College national champions.  Grambling won the team’s only other meetings in 1985 and 1986.

Even though votes in the SBN and BOXTOROW polls will actually decide the championship, it does not take away from a potentially great football game.  The Eagles come into the game on a nine-game winning streak.  Their last game was the victory over North Carolina A&T who had been No. 1 in both polls all season.

After a month off the Eagles will be fresh.  That bolds well for its running game and in particular redshirt sophomore running back Dorrel McClain who has been injured for a good part of the season.  With the help of his offensive line, led by BOXTOROW All-American senior center Carl Jones, McClain was able to amass 109 yards on just 14 carries and three touchdowns against A&T.  Redshirt sophomore Ramone Simpson is the Eagles leading rusher with 630 yards, is averaging five yards per carry and has rushed for five touchdowns.  Simpson also bring some versatility as a receiver out of the backfield.

The key to the offense is the play of quarterback Malcolm Bell.  Bell is a threat to pass and run.  He leads the MEAC in total offense averaging 248.6 yards.  He has completed 60 percent of his passes for 2,191 yards with 16 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.  He has also rushed for 544 yards and nine touchdowns.

Grambling has the best defense in the SWAC, giving up just a shade under 335 yards per game.  More importantly, they are giving up 16.7 points per game.

But in its last three games against Alcorn State in the SWAC championship game, Southern in the Bayou Classic and Texas Southern on November 19, the Tigers have given up an average of 408 yards of total offense and 26 points per game.

Good thing the Grambling offense is one of the best in FCS.  The Tigers are ranked fourth in scoring (42.5) and fifth in total offense (496.6).  The Tigers have a great balance of run and pass.

BOXTOROW All-American quarterback DeVante Kincade is the triggerman.  He is third in FCS in passing efficiency (172.8) and has the best touchdown to interception ratio in FCS (30-3).  He is completing 66 percent of his passes for 2,873.  Kincade is a passer first, but is also a threat to run with the football having rushed for 242 yards and four touchdowns.

Kincade’s favorite target is wide receiver Chad Williams.  The BOXTOROW All-American led the SWAC and is fifth in FCS in receiving yards (1,278).  He has caught 86 passes for 1,278 yards and 10 touchdowns and is averaging  14.9 yards per reception   Kincade can also go to Verlan Hunter and Dominique Leake who have combined for 76 receptions for 1,055 yards and 13 touchdowns.  Leake is a deep threat and averages 17.6 yards per reception.

The running game is stout led by first team All-SWAC running back Martez Carter.  Carter has been particularly good in the Tigers last two games and averages 7.5 yards per carry and has rushed for nine touchdowns.  Jestin Kelly is the team’s leading rusher (808), averages 6.5 yards per carry and has rushed for eight touchdowns.

As great as the Tigers are offensively, they have yet to see a defense like NCCU’s.  The numbers may not bear that out as the Eagles give up 344 yards per game, but they did what few had been able to do and that was to shut down North Carolina A&T running back Tarik Cohen.  Cohen hadn’t fumbled in almost 50 carries and the Eagles forced him to fumble three times, one of which the Eagles recovered.  They held him to just 82 yards rushing on 23 carries.  They also held the Aggies to a season-low 328 yards of total offense.

Special teams could be a key factor for both teams.  Carter is dangerous as a kick returner having scored a touchdown.  NCCU’s Mike Jones averages 22 yards per punt return and has returned two for touchdowns.

Key to victory for NCCU… stop the Grambling running game and show Kincade some different looks.  Kincade’s numbers have been good but not great in the last three games. The Eagles cannot allow Kincade to sit in the pocket.  NCCU’s book ends Frederick Henry-Ajudua and Antonio Brown have combined for 14.5 sacks and will look to put pressure on Kincade.  GSU has given up 36 sacks.  Bell will also have to be smarter with the football.  The Eagles must protect the football as a team as they’ve turned it over 24 times.  The offensive line needs to control the line of scrimmage against a stout defensive front.

Keys to victory for GSU… protect the football.  The Tigers have fumbled the ball a SWAC-leading 15 times.  They must also stay disciplined on defense, particularly up front.  The Eagles at times run the read-option which has helped Bell in his success in running the football.  They do a good job of pressuring quarterbacks (36 sacks) so they must continue to do that, but they must not allow Eagles receivers to roam free.  Led by first team All-MEAC performer LaVontis Smith, the Eagles’ top four receivers have combined for 112 receptions for 1,780 yards and 16 touchdowns.  GSU must get out to a faster start.  The Tigers found themselves down 17-0 at halftime against Alcorn State in the SWAC championship game before roaring back and holding on to win 27-20.