All Eyes FrontBy Craig R. Turner
Published: November 8, 2019
Now that Week 10 is in the books, there now two clear cut contenders in this year’s MEAC championship race. North Carolina A&T traveled down to Orangeburg , S.C. to see if it could extend the winning streak to five straight over South Carolina State. After spotting the Bulldogs an early 10-0 lead, the Aggies scored 22 straight points and then withstood a late SCSU surge to come away with 20-22 win.
The victory vaulted the Aggies into a first place tie with idle Bethune Cookman with just three games to play including a huge head-to-head match-up with perhaps championship implications in just two weeks in Greensboro.
Elsewhere, North Carolina Central got a big offensive push early in the fourth quarter to pull away from Howard 28-6 to stay just one game behind the leaders in the conference race. Howard’s fortunes turned from bad to worse later into the week as head football coach Ron Prince was officially suspended early Wednesday morning then reportedly terminated late Thursday afternoon following a month long university investigation into allegations of player abuse. Director of Football Operations Aaron Kelton will serve as the interim coach for the rest of this season.
Norfolk State celebrated homecoming in fine fashion by crushing struggling Morgan State 48-0 as quarterback Juwan Carter continued his torrid pace hitting on 16 of 28 passes for 314 yards and three touchdowns. Morgan State quarterbacks DJ Golatt and DeAndre Harris threw a combined staggering five interceptions on the day.
Florida A&M continued their winning ways as expected but Delaware State showed a lot of offensive life in the second half as the Hornets fell to the Rattlers 52-30 in an unusually high scoring affair. FAMU wide receiver Xavier Smith had a career day with 9 receptions for 184 yards and four touchdowns.
This week the league leaders Bethune-Cookman and N.C. A&T will have to guard against looking ahead as both will face the two teams at the very bottom of the conference.
#14 N.C. A&T (6-2, 4-1) will be looking to avenge last year’s stunning upset loss to Morgan State (1-8, 1-5) when it travels to Baltimore to square off against the Bears on the road. Kickoff is scheduled for 1 p.m. on ESPN3.
Bethune-Cookman (6-2, 4-1) will invade Dover, Del. as the Wildcats will be coming off a bye week to tangle with Delaware State (1-8, 1-5) at 2:00 p.m. on ESPN3.
North Carolina Central (4-5, 3-2) will be facing a must win situation to have any hopes of chasing down the league leaders as the Eagles will be entertaining a suddenly dangerous Norfolk State ( 3-6, 2-3) team as it’s homecoming opponent at 2 p.m. on ESPN 3.
#16 Florida A&M (8-1,6-0), who is ineligible for both the conference championship or postseason play, will have the week off with a bye.
“They’re the best 1-8 team in the country. Why they aren’t winning? I don’t get it. They’re big, fast, and physical. When you have all that going for you ought to be winning. Let’s hope this is not their week to figure it out. We remember them from what happened last year. They outplayed us. They beat us. We’ll carry some that with us this Saturday ”
Those were the words of A&T coach Sam Washington when sizing up Morgan State. In the preseason most observers thought MSU would be one of the most improved teams coming into this year with a solid nucleus returning for first year head coach Tyrone Wheatley.
That hasn’t been the case thus far as the Bears seemed to have been perpetually stuck in first gear. Morgan’s best overall effort of the year may have come in week 2 in a 52-21 loss to Army as the bears battled the Black Knights on pretty much even terms for two and half quarters.
One of the Bears biggest problems has been its penchant for turning the ball over as they are a minus -16 in turnover margin including five interceptions in last week’s vastly disappointing 48-point loss to a three win Norfolk State team. That along with an inexperienced offensive line racked with injuries all season long accounts for the league’s lowest scoring offense at just 14.3 points per game.
Wheatley has bemoaned the fact that in order for the Bears’ offense to really become effective he must get far better play out of quarterback position. The Bears have used two quarterbacks this season depending on the hot hand with sophomore DJ Golatt (6-3,230) and senior Deandre Harris (6-4,210).
Harris is the more dangerous of the two when throwing the football (77-150, 1028 yards, 6 TDs, 10 interceptions) while Galott is a more of a runner as evidenced by his stats of 46-99, 480 yards, 2 TDs, and 7 interceptions.
Despite averaging just over 109 yards rushing, MSU has a very capable back in Joshua Chase (5-10,210, Sr., 91 carries, 368 yds., 2 TDs). Catching the football hasn’t been a problem because of star wide receiver Manasseh Bailey (6-1,210, Sr.) who has 35 catches for 624 yards and six touchdowns.
The Bears have the largest offensive line in the MEAC but it is also one of the least experienced. Dallas Caporaletti (6-4,280), Allen Jones Jr. (6-6,360), and Keegan Trost (6-5,325) are all true freshmen starters. Senior Tarik Johnson (6-3,305) provides the leadership.
Defensively the Bears were forced to replace the four starters in the defensive line because of graduation. Micah Jarrett (6-6,335, Fr., NT), Christian Teague (6-4,240, Fr.), and JUCO transfer Merinio Dendoe (6-3,275) are the new faces up front.
The real heart of the defense is at linebacker and in the secondary. Rico Kennedy (6-3,235, Sr.) leads the MEAC in tackles (84) and a sure All-MEAC selection while fellow linebacker Ian McBorrough (6-2,230,Sr.) is fourth in stops.
Defensive backs Carl Garnes (6-1,210) and Simeon Gatling (5-10,185, So.) are both excellent in press coverage. Placekicker Nicholas O’Shea is tied for third in the MEAC in field goals (10-13, .769).
The proverbial phrase of “Trap Game” has been circulating all week long when people start talking the upcoming A&T-Morgan game. Folks are harkening back to last September when the Bears pulled off an improbable 17-14 upset of the Aggies who were then fresh off a pair of big back to-back non conference wins that gained national attention and had earned them a Top Ten ranking.
And while there are some story line similarities in the setup surrounding this year’s game, I would remind fans that the circumstances leading into this year’s confrontation are very much different than they were in early September a year ago .
Last year, the state of North Carolina was dealing with Hurricane Florence which flooded most of Eastern N.C. inflicting serious damage which affected over half of the A&T team and their families. A state of emergency was issued and all non-essential state entities were shut down including the UNC system.
With classes suspended here in Greensboro for several days on top of a bye week, students were rightfully allowed time away to check on their loved ones and their homes. The Aggies missed nearly a week of practice and had just two complete days to in which to return to campus, regroup as a team, and try to mentally prepare for an opponent that had not tasted any real signs of life in recent years. That perfect storm of events all came together at just the right time to help fuel that upset. This time that same fuel to the fire simply doesn’t exist.
A&T is not the same team it was a year ago and neither is Morgan. MSU is operating under a much different system, a new approach, and a lot of new personnel under Tyrone Wheatley than they did last year with Ernest T. Jones. The Bears had a high risk, high reward, all or nothing approach under Jones. Wheatley has proven to be far more conventional in his coaching style and the Bears are still searching for that goal of “disciplined” execution.
The game is being played in November and not in early September so monsoonal weather and all the distractions that come with it will not be a factor. A&T’s offense in 2018 was a purely a grind it out, by the numbers ground oriented attack. This year’s offense is far more balanced, certainly more pass capable, and possesses a lot more big play options that makes loading up against the run now a lot more dicey for foes. The Aggie kicking game is so vastly improved that it has evolved from a crap shoot of 2018 into a huge game changing advantage in most every game so far in 2019.
Yes, this game does have a few cosmetic similarities to the one of last season – one team nationally ranked and cruising along toward another date with destiny. The other struggling to break through for hoping to find that one shining moment to salvage a lost season by defying the odds…. once again.
But the real difference over last year is what lies between the ears – the mindset. This year’s A&T team has not allowed teams that appeared to be lesser opponents on paper to translate that into anything differently once they meet on the field. These kind match-ups have been turned into routs, a major element that was missing a year ago.
There’s too much at stake tomorrow for any thoughts of a let down or get sidetracked with a bunch of revenge chatter. When things start getting real quiet around A&T football as we approach game day, one quickly gets the impression that a strong message is about to be sent.
We’re all ears.
N.C. A&T – 37
Morgan State – 10