MEAC champs North Carolina Central goes up against SWAC champs Grambling State in the Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. Lt. General Mary Ann Miller retrieves the coin that has just been flipped signaling the start of the game. (W.A. Bridges Jr./Special to the AJC)

Grambling State wins Celebration Bowl in defensive struggle

The Celebration Bowl was supposed to feature two high-powered offenses in North Carolina Central and Grambling State. Instead, it was defense and special teams that handed Grambling State a 10-9 victory.

Grambling State (12-1) was led by running back Martez Carter, whose 32-yard touchdown gave the Tigers its first lead in the third quarter. Carter finished with 109 rushing yards on 12 carries. North Carolina Central falls to (9-3) to end their season on a heartbreaking note after a mental blunder in the final minutes.

1. Crucial final minutes

Late in the fourth quarter, Eagles quarterback Malcolm Bell found wide receiver Quentin Atkinson in the back of the end zone for a 39-yard touchdown that pulled N.C. Central to within a point at 10-9, before the extra-point attempt.

However, Atkinson got too excited and was flagged for an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty for taking his helmet off in the field of play. The 15-yard penalty pushed the PAT attempt back, and the Tigers blocked the ensuing attempt by Eagles’ kicker Brandon McLaren. That sealed the game.

After the game, Atkinson expressed remorse for the penalty.

“I do want to apologize to my team for that because that was a selfish act,” Atkinson said. “I am not selfish, but it was the heat of the moment, and I was excited to bring the team back. I do want to apologize to my team for that.”

2. Grambling’s running game leads to second-half surge

The first half wasn’t pretty for Grambling State. The Tigers gained only 184 total yards and were pressured constantly by the Eagles’ defensive front seven. Quarterback Devante Kincade was sacked three times and couldn’t find a rhythm with his receivers. That resulted in three of the Tigers’ first five drives ending in an interception, a missed field-goal attempt and a punt.

After halftime, the Tigers decided to run more, and that led to more success on offense in the second half. Running backs Jestin Kelly and Carter were able to find open holes and accounted for 44 and 48 yards respectively in the third quarter.

The ability to run the ball helped Grambling State control the tempo. In the second half, Grambling had 123 yards. The Tigers finished the game with 345 yards of offense, and that was enough to hold off North Carolina Central.

3. Penalties

The Celebration Bowl was impacted by penalties that caused many missed opportunities for both teams. Grambling State committed eight penalties for 64 yards, and it cost them chance for a late TD to ice the game away.

In the fourth quarter, Grambling was in the red zone when Kincade connected with wide receiver Verlan Hunter for an 18-yard pass. The play was called back because of a holding call, and a play later a pass interference against receiver Chad Williams forced the Tigers into a tough third-and-37 play. Both infractions took Grambling State out of field-goal range and resulted in a punt.

The Eagles committed four penalties for 48 yards. The most egregious infraction was the foul by Atkinson that led to the missed field goal.

4. Kincade-Bell matchup falls flat

Entering the week, one of the main storylines was how Grambling State’s quarterback Devante Kincade would fare against North Carolina Central quarterback Malcolm Bell. Both players didn’t play their best game and struggled to complete passes.

Bell finished 18-of-32 passing for 240 yards and the one touchdown. But, he threw two costly interceptions, including one in the red zone. Bell also had a fumble after being sacked by Grambling’s defensive lineman Arkez Cooper in the third quarter.

Kincade finished 15-of-31 passing for 149 yards and one interception. He was pressured constantly by the Eagles’ front seven and had to scramble out of the pocket to make plays. His passer rating was an 82.3 percent — a far cry from what he averaged in the regular season.

5. Coach wins Celebration Bowl with father on sidelines

Grambling State coach Broderick Fobbs has led the Tigers for three seasons. However, he always wanted to win a title with his father. He and his father both played for Grambling’s legendary coach Eddie Robinson and the win means a lot to them to follow in his footsteps.

This season was the first when that they got the opportunity to coach together (Lee Fobbs is Grambling’s running backs coach), and it was a dream for Fobbs to win with his dad.

“To be able to win this championship together on the same staff is truly amazing. It is a fairy-tale ending,” Fobbs said.

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