GREENSBORO — After having won the past three Aggie-Eagle Classics and denying NC A&T the outright MEAC title in the process each time, NC Central decided to make a statement to its rival prior to this year’s game on Saturday.
The Eagles converged as a group on A&T’s midfield logo, touching off an ugly melee that resulted in the ejection of safety Davonta Reynolds, their best defensive player. If that wasn’t enough, Central’s captains came out for the pregame coin toss flashing their championship rings from the past three seasons.
All it did was make the Aggies more determined to make a statement of their own.
“I hope they got their point across whatever it was,” quarterback Lamar Raynard said. “Because we know what our point was.”
And they definitely got it across loud and clear.
Only unlike their opponent, Raynard and his teammates waited until the game started to make their statement.
And they did it with substance rather than symbols.
Raynard threw for 153 yards and a touchdown despite blustery conditions, while Marquell Cartwright got into the end zone twice as A&T completed an undefeated regular season with a 24-10 rivalry victory.
The win was the Aggies’ school-record 11th straight win, clinching the outright MEAC crown and sending it to the Celebration Bowl in Atlanta on Dec. 16, where it will play the SWAC champion for the Historically Black Colleges and Universities national championship.
“I thought the guys fought and I thought they showed a lot of class with the way fought,” A&T coach Rod Broadway said. “It’s a great win. Being 11-0 is special. To end the season 11-0 says a lot about the coaching staff and of course, our players. We have some great players.
“My hat’s off to those guys. Happy for them to be 11-0. It’s never been done and it’s special when you start doing things that haven’t been done.”
Although the ending turned out just what Broadway and the Aggies wanted, the game began with an ominous tone as the hostility that marked the pregame festivities carried over onto the playing field.
The teams combined for 27 penalties, many of them unsportsmanlike conduct calls and personal fouls, for a total of 217 between them. There was also a second ejection and assorted other minor skirmishes.
It took until midway through the second quarter for the Aggies to finally shake off the distractions and start executing as they had for the previous 11 games.
Jamari Smith, a graduate transfer running back from South Carolina, got the ball rolling by gaining 20 yards on a screen pass. One play later, he ran for 23 yards to put A&T in position for a 13-yard touchdown from Raynard — who missed last year’s rivalry game with an injury — to Elijah Bell.
It was Bell’s 11th receiving score of the season, setting a new school record. Smith finished the game with 99 of his team’s 205 rushing yards on the day.
“We were a little bit high there to start with,” Broadway said. “You’ve got to feel your way around a little bit and (Central has) a good defense. I give them credit, they know how to win. We weren’t playing against some nobodies.
“I think we were playing on emotion to start with. Once we settled down and focused better we started playing the way we’re capable of playing.”
Although Central (7-4, 5-3 MEAC) narrowed the gap to 7-3 on a wind-aided 52-yard field goal by Aedan Johnson as time expired in the half, it was A&T that carried the momentum over into the second half. Cartwright scored a pair of 1-yard touchdowns on the Aggies first two possessions — the first set up by a 23-yard catch and run by Bell — to extend their lead to 21-3.
“The second half was just kind of a debacle,” Eagles coach Jerry Mack said. “That third quarter, they came out and went down the field, scored a touchdown and we were never able to get into a rhythm after that. We were able to pop one touchdown, but overall it just wasn’t good enough to win the game.”
Even that one touchdown, a 3-yard run by Isaiah Totten in the final minute of the third quarter, required some help. Of the 75 yards Central gained on its scoring drive, 45 came courtesy of major penalties against the Aggies, including two unsportsmanlike conduct calls.
It was a breakdown in discipline Broadway addressed immediately after his defense returned to the sideline.
“He was just telling us to keep our composure,” linebacker Jeremy Taylor said. “We were giving them field position with all the penalties we got. I feel like we let them score, they didn’t really score.”
It’s something the Aggies didn’t let happen again. After Noel Ruiz put an exclamation point on the victory with a 31-yard fourth quarter field goal, three years of emotion and frustration let loose in a field-rushing celebration that had the winning players feeling a mixture of joy and relief.
“Three years back-to-back they’ve been whupping us … to come out on top in our last game, that’s the joy part of it right there,” said Taylor, who led A&T with 10 tackles, three of which went for losses. “The relief is like oh yeah, after the three years they had, there’s a new sheriff in town.”