HBCU national championship at stake as Tigers, Aggies meet in Celebration Bowl

by Roscoe Nance
Special to boxtorow.com

Call it destiny. Call it fate. Call it providence.

Call it whatever you like, but it seems that the 2017 Black College football season was meant to end with North Carolina A&T and Grambling State playing in the Celebration Bowl with the National Championship at stake.

That’s what will come to pass Saturday when top-ranked North Carolina A&T and the second-ranked Tigers, the defending national champions, meet at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta at noon on ABC-TV to officially kick off the bowl season.

The Tigers are the defending HBCU national champions and Celebration Bowl winners. The Aggies won the first ever bowl in 2015. Each team is 1-0 in the Celebration Bowl.

The Aggies have held the top spot in the BOXTOROW Coaches and Media Polls since Week 1; Grambling, the preseason No.1, has been No. 2 since Week 4. The G-Men tumbled from the top spot to No. 4 following their season-opening loss to Tulane. They haven’t lost since bowing to the Green-Wave and have won 11 straight games, including a 40-32 victory over Alcorn State in the SWAC championship game to nail down their 24th SWAC crown; the Aggies have yet to lose and also have an 11-game winning streak after completing their first unbeaten MEAC season (11-0) in 18 years.

Not surprisingly though, Grambling coach Broderick Fobbs, nor Rod Broadway, his North Carolina A&T counterpart, say they haven’t given any thought to destiny or their teams’ winning streaks for that matter.

“We haven’t had time to look at it in that way,’’ said Fobbs, when asked if he thought of Saturday’s contest as a date with destiny for the Aggies and G-Men.” Our focus is on each opponent. Rankings are for everybody else. For us it’s about how we grow as the season progresses. The focus is one game at a time, one play at a time. You’re not looking at four or five game in a row. You don’ look up; you don’t look back until it’s done. It’s not about what we’ve accomplished.’’

Says Broadway: “We don’t travel down those roads. We just go week by week; we don’t make long-range plans. We try to stay in the now and let it clear. It will identify itself in the end, which it did.  We watched Grambling-Alcorn (SWAC Championship Game), and then there was the indication that we’re going to play Grambling when they won that one. But up to that point, we had no clue (who North Carolina A&T’s opponent would be) nor did we care.’’

Broadway once led the Grambling program from 2007-10, leading the Tigers to the SWAC and HBCU national championship in 2008.

As for the Aggies’ winning streak, Broadway says, “Our goal is always the same. All we got to do is win the next one. That’s all we look at. That’s our approach every week. We weren’t 7-0 trying to get to 11-0. We were 7-0 trying to get to 8-0.We’re glad to be 11-0. Now our goal is to be 12-0.’’

If the Aggies reach that goal, they would be the first-ever MEAC team to complete a season unbeaten. Smart money would have said that was an unlikely prospect at the start of the season considering that the Aggies lost running back Tarik Cohen, the three-time MEAC Offensive Player of the Year and BOXTOROW All-America and the conference’s career rushing leader, to the Chicago Bears in the NFL Draft.

Nobody asked Broadway.

“I expected us to be good,’’ he says. “I knew what we had. We lost an All-American running back, but we had good running back (Marquell Cartwright) coming back.’’

Cartwright, a junior, picked up where Cohen left off. He led the conference with 1,080 rushing and 13 touchdowns.

“He’s totally different from Tarik, but he’s quite capable of being a thousand yard a year guy,’’ Broadways says, “and we have some weapons on the outside. I told the staff before the season this could be one of the better football teams that we’ve had. Obviously it worked out that way.’’

Fobbs and Broadway may not have given any thought to the other’s squad during the season. However, they now have each other’s full attention as they prepare to do battle, and they can’t stop singing their opponent’s praising.

‘They’re a really good football team,’’ Broadway says of the G-Men, who haven’t lost to an HBCU since bowing to Alcorn in the 2015 SWAC Championship Game. “You don’t win 11 games without being good.  They have a quarterback that’s outstanding, they have a running that’s outstanding; they have wide receivers that can make plays. They’re good up front.  They have the things in place that a good football team has.’’

The G-Men had an average margin of victory of 22 points in their 11 wins, and they scored 30 or more points in nine of their 12 games.

The Aggies were equally dominant. They topped the 35-point mark eight times with an average margin of victory of 20 points. Among their victories was a 35-31 road decision win against FBS member Charlotte.

“They’re very impressive in all areas,’’ Fobbs says. “They are an exceptional football team.

Grambling and North Carolina A&T are near mirror images of each other from a personnel standpoint. Both feature explosive offenses led by quarterbacks who rank in the top 25 among FCS passers and were voted their respective conference’s Offensive Player of the Year; they both have game-breaking receivers, dynamic ball carriers,  and they both can call on defenses that force turnovers.

Lamar Raynard has thrown for 2,707 yards, No. 21 in the FCS, and 26 touchdowns with just five interceptions for the Aggies, who are 25-0 in games that he has started. DeVante Kincade was a notch behind Raynard at No. 24 among FCS quarterbacks with 2,680 yard, 21 touchdowns and three interceptions. Elijah Bell, Raynard’s No. 1 target, had 54 catches for 858 yards and 11 touchdowns. Darrell Clark leads Grambling’s receiver corps, which features eight Tigers with at least 15 catches. Clark has 41 receptions for 489 yards. Cartwright was No. 13 among FCS rushers and was the seventh Aggie ball carrier in the last eight years to lead the MEAC in rushing; Martez Carter is a dangerous all-around threat for Grambling who was in the FCS top 20 with 1,430 all-purpose yards.

Grambling’s defense led the FCS with 31 turnovers gained and a turnover margin of plus 21. The Aggies were no slouches with 26 forced turnovers and a turnover margin of plus 16.

“That’s why we’re both pretty good teams,’’ says Broadway. “We have those weapons in place at those key positions.’’

Their similarities aside, the teams represent a contrast in styles. The Aggies ran the ball on 58% of their 712 offensive plays while throwing it 42% of the time. On the other hand Grambling favored the run 54% of the time while throwing the ball on 46% of its 780 offensive plays.

“We’re a downhill power football team that throws in a wrinkle now and then and throws the football a little bit,’’ Broadway says. “We’re going to attack people; we’re going to maul people. For the most part I think SWAC is more a finesse league. With our style, especially this year with our running back – he’s a downhill runner – were going to come after you. We’re going to be physical.’’

With that being the case, it’s only fitting that they should square off, and who’s to argue with old man destiny?

BOXTOROW host Donal Ware had an exclusive and candid interview with Aggies head coach Rod Broadway.

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