By ADD SEYMOUR JR.
A hugely successful season for the Grambling State Tigers football that has brought them to today's Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl against North Carolina Central (9-2, 8-0 MEAC) with a chance to win an unofficial FCS HBCU national championship began with a loss.
Grambling (10-1, 9-0 SWAC) had FBS Pac 12 team Arizona on the ropes in the first game of the season. They were up 21-3 at halftime and poised to pull off one of the more stunning upsets of the college football year and one of the biggest in Grambling history.
But star quarterback DeVante Kincaide got hurt and couldn't return, the Tigers had six second-half turnovers and opened the door for Arizona to come back and win 31-21.
That loss stayed with Grambling all season.
"In my opinion, we were the better team," said Grambling head coach Broderick Fobbs during a Celebration Bowl news conference. "That's why I don't believe in pats on the back... But I thought that taught us a valuable lesson which actually springboarded us to this particular point in time."
Since then, Grambling hasn't lost to anyone, going undefeated in the Southwestern Athletic Conference and winning the SWAC title two weeks ago over Alcorn State.
Along the way, the Grambling offense and defense dominated SWAC play, ending the regular season with the league's top offense and defense and being ranked No. 16 nationally among all FCS football teams.
Kincaide, an Ole Miss transfer who replaced graduated star quarterback Jonathan Williams, has been one of the main reasons.
Kincaide, the SWAC Offensive Player of the Year, threw for 2,873 yards and 31 touchdowns and was third nationally in passing efficiency. He threw to All-Conference wideout Chad Williams, who led the SWAC with 87 receptions for just under 1,300 yards and 11 touchdowns. And when he needed a ground boost, Kincaid handed off to Martez Carter, who was third in the SWAC with 78 yards rushing per game.
Expect to see much of the same Saturday, Kincaide said.
"We are going to play Grambling football," he said. "When we take our time, we go fast. It's kind of hard to explain because our tempo is so fast that we get accustomed to it, so it's like normal to us. So we are going to tempo and we are going to do what we do best and we are going to come out and execute the game plan."
The Grambling defense, led by SWAC Defensive Player of the Year Donovan McCray, faces one of the nation's top quarterbacks in North Carolina Central's Malcolm Bell, who has been a threat passing and running this year in leading the MEAC's top passing offense.
"We're just going to come out there and execute our defense and be the gap efficient team that we are," McCray said. "He's a good player and all, but we just have to execute our jobs."
"[Bell is] a very good athlete. He can do a lot of good things with the football in his hands," Fobbs added. "What we have to do is focus on what we do first. We apply a lot of pressure, a lot of tempo and we're able to do offensively, which puts people in different situations offensively, which we want to do that.
"If we can do what we're supposed to do offensively, then basically it makes teams one dimensional, which allows our defense to do what they do well. So our offense and defense work hand in hand with each other. But he's an extremely great player. Very dynamic.
"So for us, it's up to us to make sure we play the way we're supposed to play and focus on what we do," he said. "Now we do know what they do well, and our job is to force them to do something else besides what they do well."
Carter said his team is confident that they can do what they are prepared to do and are ready to go.
"Coach put us in a position to be great Saturday," he said. "I just hope you all will enjoy it because it's going to be a show. Don't blink."