Theres never any love lost when Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference rivals North Carolina A&T and North Carolina Central meet in the annual Aggie Eagle Classic.
In a matchup where the Aggies look to the Eagles as the little brothers of Tobacco Road, A&Ts senior class was on the verge of being swept by the younger sibling heading into Saturdays matchup in Greensboro.
Despite the game not having significance outside of the state as the Eagles lost last week to Bethune-Cookman, giving the Aggies a clearer path to the Celebration Bowl, a fourth straight victory over their rivals would have ended the season for NCCU on a high note.
But that streak would not last as the Aggies overcame a slow start with a fourth quarter burst and pulled away for a 24-10 win, securing a spot in the HBCU National Championship game on December 16th in Atlanta.
Unlike the previous three years, NC A&T was finally able to play with a full deck this year. Even with the prolific record-setting rusher Tarik Cohen now with the Chicago Bears the Aggies couldnt overcome playing with a reserve quarterback in this heated rivalry game. Where the Eagles could stack eight defenders in the box to force A&T to pass, it was the cool hand of their starting quarterback that calmly directed them to this victory.
Lamar Raynard, the MEACs leading passer, wasnt spectacular, throwing for only 153 yards and the lone passing touchdown which woke A&T from their offensive doldrums.
But it was A&T’s massive offensive line which gave the Aggies the edge, controlling the line of scrimmage and enabling the team to rush for 205 yards despite not having a single back rush for 100 yards. A&T spread the wealth in the backfield, with Jamari Smith rushing for 99 yards and Marquell Cartwright scoring two touchdowns.
After Raynard connected with Elijah Bell for the 18th touchdown of his record setting career, A&T loosened up and seized control of the game. Bells 11th touchdown reception set the all-time single season mark and pulled him to with seven of former teammate Denzel Keyes for the career record.
Even with the Aggies controlling the line, the Eagles were their worst enemy, committing 14 penalties for 107 yards, which was matched by A&T’s 13 infractions for 110 yards. But the Eagles also shot themselves in the foot when they dropped two potential game changing interceptions in the first quarter that could have set a different tone early on. They also missed a chance to close the deficit to seven when Chauncey Caldwell missed Xavier McKoy after he got behind the A&T secondary for what would have been a sure touchdown.
We had chances to make plays and didnt make them today, said NCCU head coach Jerry Mack, after his first loss ever to NCA&T. Guys were in position but, didnt make the plays. Thats why were getting ready for next year.
This championship was even sweeter for Aggie Nation because its their first outright title since 2003 and their undefeated regular season is their first since 1999 when they became the first team in school history to win a then Division I-AA playoff game.