Another Hill Left To Climb

By Craig R. Turner
Published: September 13, 2014

N.C. A&T head football coach Rod Broadway found out three very important things about his football team last weekend against Coastal Carolina. First, the talent gap between the Aggies and the fifth ranked Chanticleers that was once as pronounced as the Grand Canyon three years ago is now almost nonexistent.

The second revelation was that his young A&T team has the competitive chops necessary to compete against the nation’s best. These Aggies dished out blows as well as they took in contest that turned out to be much more akin to a heavyweight prizefight more than a college football game. Make no mistake that clear evidence was delivered that these Aggies will not back down or whence when facing adversity and their confidence is not lacking. Any opponent they face this year will not be able to intimidate this bunch.

The third realization is going to be the toughest obstacle that the Aggies will have to overcome in order to become that special team that Broadway knows they could be this season. A&T has to learn how to sustain their focus in a close game situations and how to finish.

That is the major intangible factor that is standing in the way of the Aggies from establishing themselves as an consistent 10-plus win NCAA playoff program instead of settling for seasons of being a couple of games over .500 every year.

There are no drills for it, no special game strategies, nor is it something a staff can go out and recruit. The coaches will continue to preach the need to stay on focus every day. They will use all the tools and mind games they know, both old and new, to help motivate and keep the intensity levels up but it inevitably will fall to the players themselves to master the mental toughness needed in those critical game situations at crunch time.

Two seemingly faint instances of a lack of focus cost the Aggies a chance at a benchmark win against CCU. A victory over a CCU would have made a demonstrative statement as to just how far and how fast the A&T football program has climbed from the 0-27 nightmare of mid to late 2000’s and even more recently the 1-11 disaster of 2010.

There is another immediate learning experience coming up Saturday when A&T travels just up the road to Elon and there they will have a chance show what they learned from the hard lesson of last week’s disappointing 31-30 loss to the Chanticleers.

The only way for A&T to become the championship caliber team they are capable of being this season has less to do with running up lopsided margins against lesser teams. A&T’s fate will depend on how this team will step up in tough close football games and impose their will to win, to push even harder when taking control of the scoreboard and to finish putting away an opponent once gaining that advantage.

A&T has entered into the unchartered territory of being a very talented football team that is no longer able to sneak up and surprise people anymore and that will be a far more difficult concept for the average fan to grasp. The same kind of time and patience that was displayed in getting the program on its competitive feet over the last three years will have to be shown with the maturation process as well, one game at a time.

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The Elon University will play host to the Aggies this Saturday night and this game should be very interesting and presents immediate opportunities for both teams. The Phoenix is making their debut as one of the newest members of the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) after spending several years in the Southern Conference. The CAA is considered one of the three big power conferences in the FCS.

First year head coach Rich Skrosky takes over the top job after serving as the offensive coordinator and quarterback coach at Ball State. Elon is rebuilding after stumbling to a 2-10 record in 2013. Skrosky was encouraged by the play of fifth year senior quarterback Mike Quinn (6-3,204) and wide receiver and return specialist Kierre Brown (5-9,175) in a 52-13 loss to Duke two weeks ago. Elon has a veteran defense led by tackle Michael Pearson (6-2,260), Johnathan Paine (LB, 6-1,228), and strong safety Julius Moore (5-10,202) which was victimized by the big play in week one by the Blue Devils.

Surprisingly, the Aggies enter this game sporting the MEAC’s highest scoring offense at 38.5 points per game along with the top defense in turnover margin (+4) and interceptions(4). In order for the Aggies to continue this new found offensive trend, they will need to find a way to improve the vertical passing game.

Elon will undoubtedly load the box to position themselves to stop A&T‘s read option spearheaded by sensational sophomore running back Tarik Cohen and junior quarterback Kwashaun Quick. Defensively, A&T must re-energize their strong rush defense and will need big games from tackles Marcus Ragland and Mike Neal up front.

Expect the Aggies to be aggressive in the early going so they can establish their punishing ground game while the Phoenix will step up the offensive tempo much like Coastal did against a young A&T secondary. If the Aggies can get their own passing game in gear early to compliment the run then they should be able to control the line of scrimmage, time of possession, and take full advantage of their many offensive weapons.

A&T has to be aggressive on defense but not so much as to forget their assignments thereby giving ground to big screens and traps against pressure as they did against CCU. Expect Elon to spread the field in their West Coast Offense and work on isolation out on the edges against the linebackers andf to blitz at every chance defensively. The Aggies have both the physical and speed advantage going into this matchup so preparation and focus will spell the difference.

A&T knows what they need to do this week and they get it done on the road.

PREDICTION

N. C. A&T – 35

ELON – 17