ATLANTA -- Grambling State seized the opportunity when North Carolina Central's Quentin Atkinson celebrated too much in the Celebration Bowl.
Grambling State blocked an extra-point kick set back 15 yards by Atkinson's excessive celebration with just over two minutes left, holding off North Carolina Central 10-9 on Saturday in the bowl that decides bragging rights for historically black colleges and universities.
Down 10-3, the Eagles had a chance to pull even after Atkinson shook loose and caught a 39-yard touchdown pass from scrambling Malcolm Bell. But Atkinson took off his helmet while reveling with the crowd, drawing a personal foul penalty.
"I kind of felt fault for that," Atkinson said. "I do want to apologize to my team for that because that was a selfish act. I'm not selfish, but it was the heat of the moment and I was excited to bring the team back with an outstanding play."
Bell called Atkinson's mistake "kind of a bonehead play" but said the team also was hurt by other mistakes in the game.
North Carolina Central coach Jerry Mack said the longer extra point still should have been made if not for a missed block on McWilliams.
Martez Carter's 32-yard touchdown run to open the second half gave Grambling State (11-1) its first lead. The Tigers earned the bowl bid by winning the Southwestern Athletic Conference championship.
The Eagles (9-3) won the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference in Mack's third year.
Trailing 3-0 at halftime, Grambling State opened the third quarter with a run-first plan. Following five power runs by 240-pound running back Jestin Kelly, the 175-pound Carter looked extra-quick on his sharp cuts through the line on his touchdown run.
"Jestin Kelly, he's a ground-and-pound type guy," Carter said. "He wore those guys down. I'm just a home-run hitter, man. He wore them down and then they put me in. What else are you going to do? You take those blows from him and then try to take me."
Carter had 109 yards rushing, two catches for 23 yards and a combined 71 yards on four punt and kickoff returns. He was named offensive MVP. Kelly added 65 yards rushing.
The Tigers threw only one play-action pass for a short gain on the touchdown drive.
Grambling State's defense later set up more points. Arkez Cooper sacked Bell, forcing a fumble recovered by Malcolm Williams at the Eagles 25. The turnover set up a 26-yard field goal by Jonathan Wallace.
McLaren's 23-yard field goal provided the only points of the first half.
Grambling State: The Tigers placed a cap on their continued strong progress made in three years under coach Broderick Fobbs, who won seven and nine games, respectively, in his first two years. Fobbs, who played for former coach Eddie Robinson, showed on the national stage the program has returned to prominence as a force among historically black colleges.
North Carolina Central: Despite being a two-touchdown underdog, the Eagles played even with Grambling State, posting a shutout in the first half.
Bell completed 18 of 32 passes for 240 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. He had several passes dropped, including a would-be touchdown catch by Atkinson in the first half. Devante Kincade completed 15 of 31 passes for 149 yards with an interception for Grambling State.
HERE TO STAY
Both coaches praised the second-year Celebration Bowl as the more attractive alternative to a possible spot in the FCS playoffs.
"It exceeded all expectations," Fobbs said. "This deal is here to stay."
Added Mack: "The way we've been treated ... I would rather come back to this game next year."
Grambling State: The Tigers will return a good talent base, including Kincade, as they try to defend their SWAC championship. They'll need to replace six starters on offense and 10 overall. Key losses from the defense include noseguard Blain Winston and leading tacklers Guy Stallworth and Cooper.
North Carolina Central: The Eagles must replace nine senior starters, including six on offense, as they look to defend their MEAC championship. Freshman Naiil Ramadan was listed as the top backup to Bell at quarterback. The Eagles also lose four of their five starting offensive linemen, with only left tackle Nick Leverett returning. The Eagles have not released their 2017 schedule.