It was a celebration for North Carolina A&T State University after the Aggies defeated the Grambling State University Tigers 21-14 to claim the 2017 Celebration Bowl title at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta Dec. 16.
It is the second Celebration Bowl win for A&T in the bowl game’s three years of existence. The Aggies won the inaugural game in 2015.
Running back Marquell Cartwright was named offensive MVP after totaling 167 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns—one receiving and one rushing. Cartwright made big play after big play, just as his former teammate, Tarik Cohen, did in the Celebration Bowl two years ago.
“I didn’t know I was going to come into this game playing this well, but [Cohen’s success] did have an impact to where I had to improve and do as good as he did when he was here,” Cartwright said. “That’s all I wanted to do—to prove so that we can do the same thing without Tarik. We are a school that produce running backs.”
The game came down to two final drives, one by each team. With 1:42 left in the game and the score tied at 14-14, the Aggies had the ball at its 44 yard line. On first down, a pass to Cartwright was ruled incomplete on the field, but the Tigers thought the ball was fumbled and recovered by them.
After a review, the incomplete pass-called was confirmed.
Following the ruling, quarterback Lamar Raynard threw three big passes (19 yards to Khris Gardin, 19 yards to Cartwright and 15 yards to Elijah Bell) to set up the go ahead 1-yard touchdown run by Raynard to give the Aggies a 21-14 lead with 38 seconds remaining.
Raynard said he and his teammates had the will to score on that drive.
“I told the defense to get me the ball back and I will put the ball in the end zone,” Raynard said. “I made a mistake on the drive before, throwing an interception, and I told them to get me the ball back and I’m going to score. That’s what they did.”
“It was a great feeling to hear the crowd scream,” Raynard added. “We did it”
The Aggies’ defense stopped quarterback Devante Kincade and the Tigers offense again on the final drive of the game to seal the win.
After a scoreless first quarter, the Aggies got on the scoreboard first with an 11-yard touchdown pass from Raynard to Cartwright, giving A&T a 7-0 lead with 4:58 left in the second quarter.
The Tigers responded with a 8-play, 70-yard drive that ended with a 2-yard touchdown pass from Kincade to tight end Jordan Jones to tie the gam at 7-7.
The Aggies had an opportunity to make it 17-14 at the half after driving 46 yards down the field on six plays. But kicker Noel Ruiz missed the 38-yard attempt, his second miss of the game. Ruiz missed a 42-yard attempt in the first quarter.
In the third quarter, Cartwright’s 29-yard touchdown run gave the Tigers a 14-7 lead after a 7-play, 80-yard drive.
Grambling tied the game at 14 all after 29-yard pass from Kincade to running back Martez Carter.
A&T cornerback Franklin McCain was named defensive player of the game after making a key interception in the third quarter. The Tigers were in the red zone looking to score, but McCain picked of Kincade’s pass in the end zone to kill the scoring opportunity.
That interception led to Cartwright’s 29-yard rushing touchdown.
Raynard finished the game with 225 yards on 23-of-43 completions, one touchdown and two interceptions. He also had 23 rushing yards. Bell led the receiving core with 10 catches for 95 yards.
Kincade also had 225 passing yards, as well as led the team in rushing with 109 yards, two passing touchdowns and one interception.