EAST GREENSBORO – North Carolina A&T fans have grown accustomed to spending a weekend in Atlanta watching Aggies football in an NFL stadium. Why change things now?
The Aggies are headed back to the Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl and they have secured another Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) championship.
On a historic but dreary and rainy Saturday afternoon at BB&T Stadium, the Aggies made things much worse than the weather did for their archrivals N.C. Central by manhandling the Eagles to the tune of a 54-0 drubbing.
It was the most lopsided win in the 91-game series history. It also marked the most points the Aggies have ever scored against the Eagles and it was the first time either team reached or exceeded 50 points in the series.
The win puts the Aggies (8-3, 6-2 MEAC) in the Celebration Bowl for the third straight season and for the fourth time in five years. The bowl game itself is 5 years old. In addition, the Aggies claimed their 11th overall MEAC championship. It is their fifth conference title in six years and their third straight overall. They will have to share the title with S.C. State (8-3, 6-2) who defeated Norfolk State in overtime on Saturday to claim a stake.
N.C. A&T is on the best run of any MEAC school since S.C. State won six out of seven MEAC titles from 1977-83. The Aggies will not know their Celebration Bowl opponent until Dec. 7 when the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) championship game is decided. The Aggies will head into the Celebration Bowl to be played at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on Dec. 21 at noon as the defending two-time HBCU national champions.
As if the postgame excitement on Saturday wasn’t enough, the Aggies honored 18 seniors before the game as a part of Senior Day. One of those seniors, wide receiver Elijah Bell, had another stellar game against the Eagles (4-8, 3-5 MEAC). Bell finished with three receptions for 109 yards and two touchdowns. In the four games he played against NCCU, Bell caught a combined 20 passes for 417 yards and six touchdowns.
“Central always brings out the best in me,” said Bell who caught his 200th career pass on Saturday to become just the sixth player in MEAC history to accomplish the feat. “Coming in, that’s all I heard about was Central and the rivalry, so I always took it personally. I really think it’s from the senior speeches when I was a freshman. When they talked about how much they wanted that game, it hit me just how big this game is. It doesn’t matter if it is rain or snow, Central is always going to get my best.”
NCCU also got senior defensive end Tre Smalls’ best. Smalls’ final game at BB&T Stadium was a career one that included nine tackles, six tackles for loss and two sacks. N.C. A&T head coach Sam Washington said he told Smalls he was going to have a breakout game on the way to the stadium. Smalls took his coach’s confidence to heart.
“We always preach start fast, finish strong,” said Smalls. “I believe we did that today. It is like times two when it’s against those guys from Durham. The approach is 3-and-outs. We want as many 3-and-outs as we can get. We were only playing with five defensive linemen today, so we knew we had to get off the field.”
Smalls was a part of an Aggies defense that devoured anything the Eagles wanted to do offensively on Saturday. N.C. A&T held the Eagles to nine total yards. Over the past two seasons, the Eagles have only been able to compile a combined 50 yards against N.C. A&T.
In fact, the Eagles have not scored against N.C. A&T since the third quarter of the 2017 game between the two teams and have been outscored 99-0 over the past two seasons.
“I thought they prepared well this week and I think that’s where it all started, in the preparation,” said Washington. “Last week’s practices were highly intense. There was a lot of good energy and a lot of good effort. I think it carried over into the ballgame. Defensively, it was probably one of the best outcomes in my history. They finished with nine yards in total offense. We were able to produce 520 yards offensively. That’s amazing.”
Junior running back Jah-Maine Martin also jumped into the historic sphere on Saturday. Martin finished with 122 yards and two touchdowns on 11 carries. It was his sixth 100-yard rushing game of the season. He also scored touchdowns No. 20 and 21 to break Tarik Cohen’s single-season school record for total touchdowns. Last week, he broke Cohen’s single-season record for rushing touchdowns.
After Bell scored on a 68-yard touchdown reception to open the scoring in the game, Martin followed with a 20-yard TD run that broke Cohen’s single-season total touchdowns record. Junior placekicker Noel Ruiz, who has a few records of his own this season, kicked a 35-yard field goal to give the Aggies a 16-0 lead after the first quarter.
Martin opened the fourth quarter with his 21st touchdown of the season as he raced 55 yards to the end zone for his ninth TD run of 50 yards or more this season. The Aggies went into the locker room with a commanding 30-0 lead after Kashon Baker scored a rushing touchdown from two yards out.
“It’s special,” said Washington about winning another MEAC championship and earning another bid to the Celebration Bowl. “I know very little champions that 3-peat, and I’ve been in this business for a very long time. It’s just something that just doesn’t happen, so it’s special. We look forward to the opportunity of defending our title.”
Courtesy: NCAT Athletics