ATLANTA (December 15, 2018) –It does not seem plausible. A senior class that won its third HBCU national title in four years on Saturday with a 24-22 win over Alcorn State in the 2018 Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl had its doubts throughout the 2018 season.
Count those up for a minute. Not one, not two but three national titles were awarded to one senior class. If that does not make you text the wow emoji consider it is also a senior class that finished their respective careers 41-7 over the last four years, 22-2 over the past two years with back-to-back natty’s as the players refer to them. It is also a class that is 3-0 once it reaches the national championship game with two wins over Alcorn State and one against Grambling.
The most accomplished class in N.C. A&T history also has three Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference championships since you’re still counting. Some of them were redshirt freshmen in 2014 when the Aggies captured the MEAC title, therefore, the only thing missing is one for the thumb.
It seems like guys like this have all the luck and get all the breaks. Don’t believe it. The journey to all the bling and rings did not come easy for this senior class, most of whom already have their college degrees. But when N.C. A&T coach Sam Washington walked into the locker room prior to the game and he had one message for his team. Finish the job for the seniors because he knew what they had to overcome during their senior seasons.
“It’s going to be difficult to watch those guys leave,” said Washington. “They started the string of these national championships. I felt last year’s class was great and well accomplished, so let’s hope we continue to keep feeling the same way about all of our senior classes.”
It wasn’t always all good for Washington and his seniors, however. The most decorated quarterback in school history, Lamar Raynard, walked into head coach Sam Washington’s office one day and cried in his arms. There were doubts from Marquell Cartwright as to whether he would become one of the few running backs in school history to have back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons. There were even doubts in a stellar secondary that included seniors Jamaal Darden and Timadre Abram. Those doubts likely intensified when All-American cornerback Mac McCain III left the Bethune-Cookman game on Oct. 20 with a season-ending knee injury.
Along with the pitfalls were also some memorable senior seasons like the marvelous reserve to starter to MEAC offensive lineman of the year feat pulled off by Micah Shaw and the big play at the right time exploits from Malik Wilson.
But think about the circumstances surrounding Mr. Raynard. Going into the 2018 season, he was a perfect 26-0 as the starting quarterback at N.C. A&T. Twelve of those wins came during an undefeated 2017 season, another notch in the 2018 senior class’ belt. In addition, Raynard was the reigning MEAC Offensive Player of the Year. He moved to 29-0 as the Aggies starter as he led the Aggies to a win over nationally-ranked Jacksonville State, FBS East Carolina
Then came the kidney stones. Then came a loss to a winless Morgan State. Three weeks later came the loss to Florida A&M and with losses comes critics. It all placed Raynard in the arms of Washington.
“Everything went so smooth last year with us going 12-0,” said Raynard. “This year I had some struggles personally. There were times when I doubted myself. My teammates stayed with me. The coaching staff stayed with me. A lot of people doubted me, but they believed in me even when I doubted myself at times.”
Raynard was concerned as to why his 2018 season was not looking more like his 2017 career season. Washington told him to stay prayed up for not only himself but for his team. Those prayers were needed even more when Raynard sustained a concussion during the Aggies homecoming win over Norfolk State on Nov. 3 forcing him to miss next week’s game at Savannah State.
The High Point senior responded by ending his career with his two best games of 2018. Against archrival N.C. Central, he was 16-for-23 for 257 yards and two touchdowns to go along with 78 yards rushing. His career ended Saturday with him going 18-for-30 for 292 yards, two touchdowns
He finishes his career with 6,975 passing yards, only 20 yards shy of the school record. He is the Aggies all-time leader in touchdown passes (68), touchdowns responsible with 79 (68 passing, 11 rushing), completion percentage (.597) and quarterback rating (142.53). He also holds single-season records in passing yards (2,932) touchdown passes (27), touchdowns responsible for (29), completion percentage (64.6), total offense (3,117) and passing yards per game (244.3).
And he is 35-2 as the Aggies starting quarterback.
“I want to thank N.C. A&T for giving me a shot to play quarterback. I’m going to miss these guys, but I’m glad we’re going out on top,” said Raynard. “These are my brothers. As a senior quarterback, you’re called on to lead and these guys let me lead them, and I’m appreciative of that.”
Getting Marquell's 1,000
Raynard was not the only senior the Aggies rallied around. Coming off a 48-yard rushing performance against Bethune-Cookman, Cartwright needed 366 yards to reach 1,000 yards for the second straight season. The team, mainly the offensive line, decided to rally around the senior to get him there. Cartwright had two 100-yard games in his final three games to reach the 1,000-yard plateau going into the Celebration Bowl.
Cartwright’s goal may have spurred on Shaw who had four outstanding games to help the Aggies win four straight going into the postseason. He graded out at 90 percent or higher in three of those games. The only game he failed to grade out at 90 percent in the final four games was an 89 he posted against B-CU. Shaw, who had only one start (the 2015 Celebration Bowl) in his career going into the 2018 season, earned MEAC offensive lineman of the year.
Be Great In Everything You Do
The Aggies secondary also stepped up after having issues early in the season. They gave up only 128.6 yards per game over the final five games. They also intercepted six passes in the same span.
Malik Wilson was terrific all season including on Saturday. After Alcorn State cut the Aggies lead from 17-3 to 17-16 in the third quarter, Wilson returned his fourth kickoff of the season for a touchdown, with a 79-yard return that busted up the Braves’ momentum.
“From the first day we stepped on campus, we started a legacy,” said Wilson about the senior class. “From there, we just started doing the small things it takes to build something special. It was instilled in us by (former head coach) Rod Broadway to be great in everything we do. Coach Washington stepped in those big shoes and helped us finish it and make history, really.”