Aggies vie for HBCU title at Celebration Bowl

NC A&T faces Grambling in mirror-image matchup

Members of the NC A&T football celebrate their win against rival NC Central last month, a victory that clinched the MEAC title and a trip to the Celebration Bowl. (Kevin L. Dorsey Photography / courtesy of NC A&T)

When NC A&T and Grambling play in the Celebration Bowl at Atlanta’s new Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Saturday, it will mark the first time since 1996 that the teams have met on the football field.

That doesn’t mean the Historically Black College powers are strangers. Because of their shared histories, they’re actually quite familiar with one another.

A&T coach Rod Broadway spent four seasons at Grambling before returning to his home state to join the Aggies in 2011. The Tigers’ Broderick Fobbs, meanwhile, has a similar connection to A&T through his father Lee, who coached there from 2005-08 at a time in which the Aggies suffered through a 27-game losing streak.

That cross-pollination has led to an air of mutual respect between the rivals as they prepare for their battle to determine this year’s HBCU national champion.

“I’ve been around A&T, my dad was at A&T for a couple of years. I was able to see how they do things as well,” Fobbs said last week at a pre-bowl press conference. “One thing I can honestly say is that ‘Aggie Pride,’ that’s real. You’re talking about two storied programs, understanding putting football in its rightful place and giving it what it needs in order to be successful.”

NC A&T senior running back Jamari Smith carries the ball against rival NC Central. The Aggies will attempt to be the first MEAC team to finish undefeated when they face Grambling in the Celebration Bowl. (Kevin L. Dorsey Photography / courtesy of NC A&T)

A&T (11-0) won the inaugural Celebration Bowl in 2015 by beating Alcorn State and is one win away from becoming the first team in MEAC history to finish a season undefeated.

Grambling (11-1) is the defending Celebration Bowl champion after last year’s one-point win against NC Central, and is seeking its 15th HBCU national crown after winning its record 25th SWAC title.

“When you think of black college football, (Grambling is) what you think of,” Broadway said. “It means a lot to have coached at a place like that, where football is king. But it means a lot to coach at a place like A&T, too.

“We’ve brought this program a long way, from 0-27 to black college national champions. Our seniors have an opportunity to win 40 games in four years, something that’s never been done at our university. We’re proud of that.”

The similarities between the Aggies and Tigers go much deeper than the personal histories of their coaches.

According to both Broadway and Fobbs, their teams are also mirror images of each other.

Both teams have quarterbacks that won their respective conference Player of the Year Awards. A&T’s Lamar Raynard passed for 2,875 yards and 29 touchdowns during the regular season while throwing only five interceptions. Grambling’s DeVante Kincade has thrown for 2,680 total yards and 21 touchdowns with only three picks.

Both teams have first-team all-conference running backs in the Aggies’ Marquell Cartwright and the Tigers’ Martez Carter.

A&T averages 36.4 points and 429 yards per game while Grambling’s numbers are almost identical at 32.7 points and 374 yards.

Defensively, the Aggies rank fourth in the FCS allowing just 251 yards per game and have recorded 35 sacks. The Tigers allow 331 yards per game and lead the FCS with 47 sacks. The teams rank 1-2 in the nation in turnover margin.

“They’re built similar to how we’re built,” said Broadway, a former UNC offensive lineman who went 35-12 with three division titles and a SWAC championship during his tenure at Grambling.

“They have a good quarterback, an outstanding running back, a good offensive line, does a good job on defense. It’s going to be a challenge for us. But we’re looking forward to going down, competing and seeing if we can win us a championship. That’s what we’re built for. That’s our goal. If we play with the same intensity we ended the season with, we’ll be OK.”