Monday, December 19, 2016

Grambling Holds On to Defeat North Carolina Central 10-9 in Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl


With two teams featuring dynamic quarterbacks who led offenses at Grambling State and North Carolina Central to seasons where they led the SWAC and the MEAC in passing and scoring, everyone heading to the Atlanta’s Georgia Dome expected to see a lit-up scoreboard during Saturday’s Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl.

The exact opposite happened.

Grambling held on to win 10-9 after turning to Martez Carter and a gashing ground game in the second half, while North Carolina Central was plagued by some big drops and a heartbreaking penalty late.

That penalty – NCCU’s Quentin Atkinson took his helmet off in celebrating his 39-yard touchdown catch with 2:14 remaining that seemed to tie the game – pushed back the potentially game-tying extra point 15 yards and turned it into a longer kick that Grambling ended up blocking to effectively end the game.

“I was excited to catch the ball and bring the team back to tying the game back up,” a dejected Atkinson said after the game.  “And really I was just too excited. I shouldn’t have taken my helmet off.  I apologized to my team. But it shouldn’t have come down to that one touchdown.”  

Grambling's win has led to them being proclaimed FCS HBCU national champions in most polls. 

It was a game where both teams’ offenses sputtered early on.  Grambling, who planned to focus on using their high-tempo offense led by Kincaide to keep North Carolina Central off balance, got into the Eagles territory on each of their first two drives.  But Kincaide threw an interception to Alden McClellon to end the first drive and then Johnathan Wallace missed a field goal.

North Carolina Central had the same issues, as Atkinson dropped what should have been a touchdown catch in the first quarter.  The Eagles ended up with a field goal on that drive, but after driving down deep into Grambling territory again on their next drive, Malcolm Bell was picked off by Grambling’s Deaumante Jones early in the second quarter.  They later missed a field goal just before the half.

For Grambling, the 3-0 halftime deficit was a wake-up call.

“[Offensive coordinator Eric] Dooley] came in at halftime and said, ‘Guys, they took their best shot and we haven’t even gotten started yet.’” Kincaide said.  “So what we did was just buckle down and when we got out there, we just took what they were giving us.”

What they took was an opening using a ground game featuring Carter and Jestin Kelly.  Carter had led a first half Grambling rushing game that totaled 73 yards at halftime, 45 by Carter.  On their first drive of the second half, they rushed for 66, 32 coming on a Carter touchdown run for the game’s only TD to put the Tigers up 7-3 with 9:14 left in the third quarter.

“Jestin Kelly is a ground-and-pound type of guy, and he really wore those guys down,” said Carter, the game’s Offensive Most Valuable Player.  “Then me, I’m just a home-run hitter.  You ground them down like that and then you put me in, what else are you going to do?”

The Grambling defense stepped up to force the Eagles into two three-and-outs, two punts, a Bell interception and stopping a North Carolina Central drive on five plays.    The Eagles only had one first down in the third quarter. 

Grambling got a 26-yard field goal from Wallace midway through the third quarter.

North Carolina Central got a spark midway through the fourth quarter as Bell drove the Eagles to the Grambling 44 before the game’s Defensive MVP Jameel Jackson stepped in front of Bell’s pass to pick it off an end the drive. 

“We ran a different package of four corners and we also ran two safeties,” Jackson said.  “For me to be in the game at that moment to make that play, I have to thank God.”

But the Grambling offense sputtered again and ending up punting back to NCCU.

With 4:03 left, North Carolina Central started at their own 41 and quickly drove down to the Grambling 39-yard line.  Bell then zipped a looping pass to the left corner to Atkinson for a touchdown that seemingly was going to send the game into overtime.

But Atkinson’s unsportsmanlike conduct penalty pushed the extra point try back 15 yards.  On the kick attempt, Joseph McWilliams blocked Brandon McClaren’s kick and it was retuned to the NCCU 42.  The Eagles’ onside kick was unsuccessful, effectively giving the win to a jubilant Grambling squad.

“It was just one of those situations where we had to bite down and play great defense and run the football,” said Grambling head coach Broderick Fobbs.  “That’s what makes our football team a very dominant team – we’re able this year to win many different ways.  Today we ran the football effectively and was able to establish some drives and put what we needed to in the end zone.”

The day before the game, NCCU head coach Jerry Mack said his team would need to score at least 30 points to win the game and score touchdowns in the red zone.  Neither of those things happened

Bell threw for 240 yards and his TD, but had the two crucial interceptions.  He led the Eagles with 31 yards rushing, as the Grambling defense only allowed 55 yards on the ground to NCCU.
“We anticipated a hard-fought game, a close game,” Bell said.  “When the plays were there, we tried to make them.  We didn’t make some plays so it didn’t go our way.  Miscommuication here, someone falling there, you know, things we normally just don’t do. You can’t blame it on the stage.  They were just mistakes.

“If we had gotten blown out, it probably wouldn’t hurt this bad,” he said. “Us coming up one point… you can’t describe the feeling.  You just thought you were there and then it gets taken away from you.”

Mack said his entire team didn’t play like the squad that stormed through the MEAC this season.

“It goes back to poor execution,” Mack said. “A lot of those plays that those guys dropped, they were routine plays we normally make each and every week and also in practice.  They didn’t make them today.  Sometimes that’s what you’re going to get when you’re dealing with 18-to-20-year olds.  But for whatever reason, those throw and catches just weren’t there today.” 

While Kincaide threw for just 149 yards, Carter led Grambling with 109 yards rushing on just 12 carries.  Kelly finished with 65 yards on 17 rushes.

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