ATLANTA — A valiant effort from senior Devante Kincade fell short.
Try though he did, Kincade could not lead Grambling to a game-tying touchdown in the closing minute of the Celebration Bowl against North Carolina A&T on Saturday in Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
As a result, he and the Tigers left this brand-new stadium with a 21-14 loss, just short of a second straight black college national championship.
That honor went instead to the Aggies, who went undefeated in 12 games to claim their second in three years under Rod Broadway.
An audience of 25,873 watched Kincade rush for 93 yards on 16 carries and throw for 225 with two touchdowns.
The Tigers' second-leading rusher was Martez Carter, who gained 12 yards on six attempts.
“That kid has been amazing for us all season and even more today,” Grambling coach Broderick Fobbs said. “We couldn’t get much going on the ground other than him. He kept us in that game. They dominated on the line, but he was an equalizer. He was a magician, but it’s hard to ask a guy to keep pulling the rabbit out of his hat.”
Broadway, the former Grambling coach who earned his third black college national title, joked that he would be the first one at Kincaid’s graduation party.
“That kid showed up and showed out,” Broadway said. “He’s faster than he appears on tape. And he’s so slippery. There were several times we had him dead to rights and couldn’t bring him down. It was frustrating. We were pretty good on the defense, but he was tough.”
Both teams came into the game averaging more than 30 points per game. But this kickoff to the bowl season was ruled by the defenses.
Grambling trailed by seven points in the fourth quarter when Kincade finished off an 80-yard drive, firing a touchdown pass to Martez Carter. It tied the score at 14.
After a stop, the Tigers got the ball back on their own 8-yard line. Lyndemian Brooks fumbled and the Aggies were in prime position to take the lead, but Grambling's defense made a strong stand, holding A&T scoreless. On fourth down, De'Andre Houges led a group of Tigers to stop Cartwright from going in for the score.
"We didn't quit," said Houges, who also had an interception Saturday. "We fought the whole way. We did everything we could for our brothers. There wasn't anything special, other than knowing we needed to stop the ball."
But as well as Grambing's defense played, it was on the field for 80 plays Saturday. Ultimately, the Tigers wilted.
The Aggies got the ball with 1:42 remaining. Seven plays and 56 yards later, they took a 21-14 lead when Raynard scored on a 1-yard run with 38 seconds left.
It appeared that Cartwright fumbled on the second play of the drive, but officials ruled it an incomplete pass. Fobbs challenged and lost, giving up his final timeout.
"I didn't want to leave anything to chance," Fobbs said, "When I first saw it I thought it was a fumble, but then when I saw it again, I knew we lost that timeout. I'd still challenge it again."
The Aggies then moved the ball downfield and scored.
Kincade led Grambling into A&T territory, but his final pass fell incomplete as time ran out.
"I told my team no matter what happened today that we are still champions," Fobbs said. "We came up short today, but we have a good program and these seniors left a foundation to build on."