N.C. A&T won its first outright MEAC title in 14 years, defeating rival N.C. Central 24-10 in the regular-season finale on Saturday.
For the first time in three years this game was played without the MEAC title on the line. The Aggies wrapped that up last week when Bethune-Cookman eliminated the Eagles from contention. N.C. Central (7-4, 5-3 MEAC) was playing for bragging rights only, but the Aggies were playing to end a streak of three consecutive losses to their rivals.
N.C. A&T (11-0, 8-0) also completed just its third undefeated season in school history and will play in The Celebration Bowl next month in Atlanta. The Eagles saw their offensive struggles continue. After dropping 42 points on Delaware State on Oct. 28, N.C. Central has only scored one offensive touchdown in three straight games, finishing with 215 yards of total offense. The Eagles, the most penalized team in the MEAC, were flagged 15 times for 110 yards.
N.C. A&T, which came into the contest averaging 436.7 yards of offense, finished with 358, showing off a balanced attack that kept N.C. Central off guard most of the afternoon.
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The Aggies scored on consecutive drives to start the third quarter, both times on 1-yard runs by Marquell Cartwright to go up 21-3 on the Eagles, taking control of the game after a seesaw first half. N.C. Central answered with a 13-play, 75-yard drive, capped off by a 3-yard run by Isaiah Totten to make it 21-10 to end the third.
The Eagles badly needed a score to make things interesting but were forced to punt on their opening drive of the fourth. Once again, the theme of the season, penalties hurt N.C. Central on the drive. On third-and-8 it appeared that Chauncey Caldwell picked up the first down with a scramble, but the Eagles were called for holding, making it third-and-18. Caldwell’s third-down pass attempt fell incomplete.
Depending on the defense to get a stop, N.C. Central couldn’t get off the field on third-and-5. Aggies quarterback Lamar Raynard (10-for-18 for 153 yards) hit Elijah Bell for a 38-yard gain. Bell, who earlier in the game broke the A&T single-season touchdown receptions record, made an impressive one-handed grab on the sideline. The Aggies capped the drive off with a 31-yard field goal from Garrett Nestor, giving A&T a 14-point advantage with 7:10 remaining in the game.
For a while it seemed like all the action fans would get took place before the game. When both teams took the field for pregame warmups, the players met at the midfield logo and there was some pushing and shoving. When the dust settled, N.C. Central junior safety Davanta Reynolds was ejected and both teams received personal fouls.
That got everyone fired up, but it didn’t carry over into the first quarter as both teams were knotted at zero after the first 15 minutes. The Eagles started the game on an 11-play drive but came up short when Aedan Johnson missed a field-goal attempt from 27 yards away. N.C. Central only had two drives in the opening quarter, the second one ending in a punt. The Aggies bridged the first and second quarters with a 12-play drive, but Alden McClellon sacked Raynard for a loss of 8 yards on third-and-8, forcing a punt by the Aggies.
A&T finally got something going on its second drive of the second quarter, scoring on a five-play drive when Raynard connected with Bell on a 13-yard score with 6:01 remaining in the first half.
The first half ended in an interesting sequence of events that led to the first points of the day for the Eagles. The Aggies moved to the N.C. Central 34, but were called for consecutive penalties, forcing them to punt back to the Eagles with 16 seconds remaining. On first down Totten burst free for a gain of 40 yards to the A&T 35. After an incomplete pass, Johnson redeemed himself with a career-long 52-yard field goal, a new N.C. Central school record, giving the Eagles some life going into the half, down 7-3.
It was the first time the Aggies defeated N.C. Central in four years and the first time under Jerry Mack that N.C. Central dropped two MEAC games in a row.