N.C. Central’s historic flight en route to an HBCU national championship was grounded in the waning minutes as the Eagles were edged out by Grambling State 10-9 in the Celebration Bowl on Saturday.
The Eagles clipped their wings by committing a costly unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and then allowing a block on the ensuing extra point.
Trailing 10-3 with 2:14 left on the clock, quarterback Malcolm Bell found a wide-open Quentin Atkinson in the back of the end zone for a 39-yard touchdown. Unfortunately, a jubilant Atkinson removed his helmet and was flagged on the play. This penalty yardage was assessed on the extra point, pushing the attempt back to the 18-yard line. Kicker Brandon McLaren’s extra point was blocked by Joseph McWilliams to seal the Eagles’ fate.
“I am at fault. I do want to apologize to my team for the selfish act,” said Atkinson, a Raleigh junior who attended Southeast Raleigh High School. “I’m not selfish. It was the heat of the moment. I was excited to bring the team back with the outstanding play. I apologize.”
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Both schools lit up the scoreboard throughout the season, but in this affair, points came at a premium.
N.C. Central posted the first mark of the game with a 23-yard field goal by McLaren midway through the first quarter. This 3-0 lead would hold for the remainder of the quarter and the half.
Throughout the first half, the Eagles’ defense mounted a towering wall which knocked Grambling State down to its knees.
Unfortunately for the Eagles, their offensive production didn’t match the execution displayed by the defense. The running lanes were clogged, and passing zones were heavily occupied by Grambling State.
The Tigers recorded their lone touchdown in the third quarter when running back Martez Carter broke free on a 32-yard dash to give his team a 7-3 lead. Grambling would later add a field goal to extend the lead to 10-3.
N.C. Central had an array of dropped passes all afternoon. Despite the team’s inability to execute, the Eagles still were in it until the final gun.
On their touchdown drive, Bell used his legs and arm to break down the pressure effectively. Facing third-and-12 from the 39, he scrambled to his left and hurled a pass to Atkinson for the score. Bell’s scrambling allowed Atkinson to sneak behind the coverage and stand alone in the end zone.
However, in the excitement of the play, the receiver had a mental lapse and committed an uncharacteristic penalty at the most inopportune time.
The Eagles (9-3) had a propensity for scoring at will in 2016, averaging 30.7 entering the Celebration Bowl. However, the typically consistent offensive flow, which received so much praise in previous outings, was a non-factor in the game to decide an HBCU national champion.
“We had poor execution. We had a lot of dropped passes on routine plays we make every week. They just didn’t make them today. Whatever the reason, those throws and catches weren’t there today,” N.C. Central coach Jerry Mack said. “We had an opportunity to tie the game. We didn’t block the guy off the edge. Our defense played their hearts out. We didn’t do a great job of executing. I think a lot of that had to do with Grambling was doing what they wanted to do.”