North Carolina Central might see Marquell Cartwright, Lamar Raynard and Elijah Bell in their sleep for weeks.
The N.C. A&T three-headed monster had a field day at O’Kelly-Riddick Stadium, as the Aggies dominated the Eagles, 45-0, in the 90th Aggie-Eagle Classic, clinching at least a share of the MEAC title.
Cartwright, the senior running back, Raynard, the quarterback returning from injury, and his favorite target Bell, combined for 567 yards of total offense and six touchdowns in one of the most lopsided victories in the history of the rivalry.
“Clearly they were the better team today,” NCCU head coach Granville Eastman said. “They imposed their will on us and dominated us from beginning to end, so congratulations to them.”
The Aggies have only lost two games with Raynard under center, and the High Point native shredded the Eagles’ defense for 257 yards through the air, and 78 more on the ground. He had help from his high school teammate in Cartwright (20-110, 2TDs) and Bell, who finally looked healthy, finishing with 10 catches for 122 yards and two scores.
As much as the Aggies (9-2, 6-1) thrived on offense, NCCU (4-6, 2-4) did the opposite. The Eagles managed just three first downs in the opening half (five for the game) and had just eight yards in the third quarter. NCCU finished with 41 yards of total offense and -21 rushing on 23 carries.Twelve consecutive drives by the Eagles ended with punts, and they only reached A&T territory once through three quarters. The running game, or lack of one for NCCU, was the most alarming stat that jumps off the page.
“We had to run the ball with some success, kind of like we did the last couple of weeks,” Eastman said. “They just really penetrated, they were not going to allow us to get going on that. They really loaded up (the box) and we took some shots over the top and we just couldn’t make those big plays.”
NCCU used two quarterbacks - Naiil Ramadan and Dominique Shoffner - who completed a combined nine passes for 62 yards.
The Aggies were too balanced on offense. Though not a strong second half team this season, A&T scored on its opening drive of the third quarter, covering 76-yards in four plays, which ended in a 1-yard run by Cartwright. The biggest play of the drive was a 55-yard pass from Raynard to Ron Hunt. Raynard hit Bell for a gain of 10 on the next play, setting up the offense on the one for Cartwright. Trying to contain all three proved to be too tall a task for the Eagles.
“Very difficult,” Eastman said. “The match ups, everything is a chess game. They (A&T) do a very good job of holding the offense on the field just long enough for you to tip your hand.”
Coming into the game the Eagles knew they would have to deal with Cartwright, but Raynard, who was in concussion protocol, wasn’t cleared until Wednesday and Bell, who had off season surgery, finally looked like the record-breaking receiver he is. NCCU senior safety Davanta Reynolds, who finished with four tackles said they saw the balance on film, but it’s pick your poison with the A&T offense.
“They were the more physical team,” Reynolds said. “Hats off to them.”
The only thing that worked in favor of the Eagles in the first half was they pinned A&T inside the 20 twice, and the Aggies failed to score. A&T started its second drive of the third quarter on the three, but easily went 96-yards in nine plays. The drive ended with a 24-yard touchdown pass from Raynard to Bell, making the score 38-0 in favor of the visitors.
By the fourth quarter, the only thing in doubt was if Cartwright would reach 1,000 yards for the season, which he did, and if the Eagles would avoid their first shutout in this series since 2013. A&T was able to add to the scoring total, making it 45-0 when Kashon Baker scored from 1-yard out with 2:22 remaining.
N.C. A&T built a 24-0 halftime lead behind its ground game and a deadly combination Raynard and Bell, who got the onslaught started with a 4-yard touchdown in the corner of the endzone on their second drive.
That capped off a 6-play, 65-yard drive after N.C. A&T went three and out on its opening drive of the game. After the Eagles ensuing drive stalled — a recurring theme in the first half — Cartwright wasted little time reaching paydirt for the first time, going 35-yards on first down for a quick score, giving the Aggies a 14-0 lead at the end of the first.
A&T finished the opening quarter with 154 yards of total offense, compared to just 19 from NCCU, which only picked up one first down over its first 14 plays. By the time the Eagles reached play No. 20, they only had 22 yards.
Noel Ruiz kicked a 32-yard field goal on A&T’s second drive of the second quarter, and the Aggies went on a 6-play, 76-yard scoring drive, ending with a Jah-Maine Martin 10-yard run with 4:48 remaining in the first half.
The NCCU offense finished with 36 yards of total offense in the first half, compared to 273 from A&T. The Aggies did most of their early damage on the ground, mainly Cartwright (88 yards rushing in first half), but also got a spark from Raynard. On the Aggies’ last scoring drive of the first half, Raynard broke free for a gain of 32 yards (a season-long run), and the lanky quarterback followed that with a 12-yard gain to put A&T in scoring position.
The Eagles’ first half MVP was punter Johnathan DeLucca, who booted the ball five times for 206 yards, twice placing the Aggies inside the 20. Neither of the those drives ended in points, but little else went wrong for N.C. A&T, who had four players with more total yards than the entire NCCU team before halftime.
The season isn’t over for the Eagles, who travel to South Carolina State for a makeup game. The Aggies advanced to the Celebration Bowl for the second consecutive year and the third time in four seasons after Bethune-Cookman defeated FAMU in Orlando.