N.C. Central is a MEAC co-champion for the second year in a row.
The Eagles defeated archrival N.C. A&T in a 21-16 thriller before a near sellout crowd at Aggie Stadium.
The victory was a replay of last season’s matchup, where NCCU (8-3) upset the nationally-ranked Aggies (9-2) in Durham for a share of the title.
The Eagles’ postseason future hinged on the outcome of the Bethune-Cookman-Florida A&M game. A Bethune win creates a three-way tie among the Eagles, Aggies and Wildcats, and would give N.C. A&T the top seed and a trip to the ESPN inaugural Celebration Bowl and end the Eagles season.
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A Bethune loss would have given NCCU the top seed and a trip to the Celebration Bowl. But the Wildcats defeated FAMU 35-14.
“It’s not disappointing, (but) it would be bittersweet,” said Jerry Mack, who is the first NCCU football coach to win 15 games in two seasons. “I feel we are one if not the best team in the MEAC right now. But at the same time, we did what we had to do and we finished the season strong. We win the MEAC for the second straight season.”
And, for the second straight time, the game went down to the wire.
With 90 seconds left, the Aggies began their final drive from their 10-yard line. They advanced to the NCCU 35 before Eagles defensive lineman Richard Mitchell sacked quarterback Kylil Carter to end the game.
NCCU ends the season as the only FCS team to prevent a fourth-down conversion.
“The defensive line has been great for us all year,” said senior safety C.J. Moore who moved up to third on NCCU’s all-time tackles list. “They’ve created pressure and created turnovers for us all year. We were in position to make a play on the ball, and we couldn’t have went out a better way than with a sack.”
Both defenses ruled for most of the first half.
N.C. A&T didn’t cross the 50-yard line until 11 minutes left in the second quarter, which was helped along by an Eagles penalty that gave it a first down. The Aggies capitalized on the gift with a 29-yard field goal with 8:38 in the first half to go up 3-0.
But the deficit only seemed to rejuvenate the Eagles offense. NCCU quickly drove 69 yards in five plays that quarterback Malcolm Bell finished with a 3-yard scoot to put the Eagles ahead 7-3.
NCCU missed another scoring opportunity when Bell was intercepted by N.C. A&T defensive lineman Marquis Ragland inside the red zone with 1:31 left. Bell completed 14 of 28 passes for 200 yards and an interception. His main man was wide receiver LaVontis Smith, who caught seven receptions for 123 of those yards.
In the third, the Aggies put together one of their best drives of the game and advanced to the NCCU 12, but couldn’t capitalize after missing a 28-yard field goal.
“They outfought us today in a game that we thought we would win,” N.C. A&T Rod Broadway said. “We struggled offensively and got hurt again in our specials teams; that’s four games in a row. But we will move on.”
Smith gave the Eagles some breathing room with a 67-yard punt return for a 14-3 lead, but Aggies returner Tony McRae returned the favor on the next play with a 90-yard kickoff return.
NCCU again increased its lead when running back Dorrel McClain broke lose for 24 yards and a 21-10 lead early in the fourth quarter. McClain finished with a career high 167 yards against the FCS’ No. 1 rushing defense.
The Aggies’ final touchdown was a Carter to Dequan Swann 1-yard connection with 7:06 left.