When the wacky football action of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference ended on Saturday, the craziness brought about clarity when it comes to the MEAC representative for the Celebration Bowl.
The North Carolina A&T Aggies took care of their affairs. The Aggies got 127 yards rushing and two touchdowns on 27 carries from junior Marquell Cartwright to earn a 36-17 win over Savannah State at Aggie Stadium. During the game, Cartwright went over the 1,000-yard mark for the season, giving the Aggies seven 1,000-yard rushers in the last eight seasons.
“It feels great to be able to reach a point that a lot of people try to reach but most don’t get there,” said Cartwright about his career season. “It feels great, but I really don’t care about it much. I want to win at the end of the day.”
Junior quarterback Lamar Raynard, Cartwright’s high school teammate at High Point Andrews, was 17-for-227 for 252 yards and two touchdowns. Along the way he broke Alan Hooker’s 32-year old single-season record for touchdown passes. Raynard has 25 TD passes on the season, eclipsing Hooker’s old mark of 24. Hooker also said goodbye to his 32-year old record for most completions in a season (169). Raynard has 175 completions on the season heading into next week’s regular-season finale.
Raynard was not finished removing Hooker’s name from the record books, however. Raynard broke the single-season school record for touchdowns responsible for. Hooker’s old mark stood at 26 (24 passing, two rushing). Raynard is responsible for 28 (25 passing, three rushing) N.C. A&T touchdowns this season. Raynard now owns single-season marks in passing, total offense and three marks mentioned earlier.
Aside from making history, the Aggies brought sanity to the MEAC race in what was an insane day. N.C. A&T (10-0, 7-0 MEAC) clinched at least a share of the MEAC title, giving the Aggies three MEAC titles in the past four seasons. North Carolina Central (7-3, 5-2 MEAC) lost in the final seconds at home to Bethune-Cookman to remove themselves from Celebration Bowl consideration.
Meanwhile, Howard (7-3, 6-1 MEAC) won in the final seconds at home over Norfolk State to keep themselves in contention, but barely. Howard can still clinch a share of the MEAC title next week with a win over Hampton and a N.C. A&T loss to NCCU. But the tiebreaker scenario is not in the Bison’s favor for a trip to Atlanta and a chance to play in Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
In case of a two-way tie where the two teams did not play one another, the Sagarin rating, which measures strength of schedule, serves as the tiebreaker. N.C. A&T came into Saturday’s game with a 149 ranking, while Howard came in at 208. Howard’s opponent next week, Hampton, came in slightly lower at 224. A win over Hampton would likely not do enough for the Bison even if the Aggies lost to NCCU, which entered Saturday’s play with a 202 rating.
There is a good chance none of that will take away from N.C. A&T’s game against heated rival NCCU next week at Aggie Stadium (1 p.m.). For starters, the Aggies want their first outright title in 14 years, and it is not missed on the Aggies that the Eagles have defeated them three straight seasons.
“We’re going to enjoy this, and then we’re going to get ready for next week,” said N.C. A&T coach Rod Broadway speaking on the win over SSU. “Hopefully, we are going to play a little bit better than we did last year. I don’t know if sharing a championship is actually what we want. But let’s take the championship out of it. It is a rivalry game, and it’s Central. We’ve got to get ready to play regardless of the situation.”
The Tigers (2-8, 2-5 MEAC) tried to make the Aggies’ path to another MEAC title difficult. Freshman quarterback D’Vonn Gibbons finished with 93 yards rushing and a touchdown on 19 carries, while also throwing for 137 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions. Gibbons’ 2-yard touchdown set up by his 60-yard completion to Paris Baker got the Tigers to within 19-10 with 11:39 remaining in the third quarter.
But on SSU’s next drive, Gibbons’ tipped pass landed in the grasp of senior rover Jeremy Taylor for an interception. Taylor, who had a pick-6 last week at Norfolk State, returned Gibbons’ INT 22 yards to the SSU 9-yard line. Three plays later Cartwright was in for a 1-yard touchdown. N.C. A&T’s defense turned stingy from there. SSU’s next two drives went for a combined minus-16 yards.
N.C. A&T utilized the good field position given by its defense to start the fourth quarter in SSU territory. It led to a 32-yard field goal by freshman Noel Ruiz to give the Aggies a 29-10 lead. The Aggies capped their scoring an 18-yard touchdown pass from Raynard to sophomore Elijah Bell. Bell led the receiving corps with five catches for 77 yards. His TD reception tied the school’s single-season touchdown receptions record at 10. Bell is tied with Craig Thompson and former teammate Denzel Keyes.
“I think our guys earned the right to get to 10 wins,” said Broadway. “I don’t think we played as well as we can play, but being 10-0 is special so we’ll take the win and try to grow from it and get better.”