That Next Step Up

By Craig R. Turner
Published: November 6, 2014

We are now in the final quarter of the season. Fans and coaches alike have not been talking about the possibilities of what if since late September for fear of having the bubble burst in their faces prematurely as in past years. Rod Broadway has been able to keep his players pretty well insulated from a lot of the media spotlight and the abundance accolades that have been flowing from the Aggie fan base after the 40-21 homecoming blitzkrieg of Florida A&M two weeks ago.

The Aggies are now sitting at 7-2 and 4-1 in the MEAC and are part of a 5-way tie for first place. Of those five teams, four of them will face each other this week. The first one is Thursday night when the Bethune Cookman Wildcats travels to Norfolk State to play the Spartans. BCU is the 2-time defending MEAC champion and rests at number at #20 in the FCS polls and Norfolk has been the Cinderella story out of the five squads involved in the chase.

The mystery of the Spartans has been how have they managed to make it this far with one of the worst offensive teams in FCS scoring a total of 99 points through eight games (11.0 PPG) yet staying in the top tier of the conference this late into the season. It’s all about their defense which is ranked in the top five in the FCS allowing just 16.5 ppg. and 254 ypg. That coupled with some very consistent special teams play has kept Pete Adrian’s team right in the thick of things all the way into November.

Weather may prove to be the one intangible that neither team may be able to handle as moderate to heavy rain and dropping temperatures are forecast for the Tidewater area. BCU has not made many trips outside of sunny Florida and this game will most likely be played in less than ideal playing conditions. This game will definitely be worth watching on ESPNU’s featured national game.

A lot of aspirations and hopes will have been determined by nightfall this coming Saturday and what was once five teams in the hunt will have been reduced to three true contenders with just two games to play in what appears to be boiling down to a photo finish in the chase for the MEAC title.

BCU, Norfolk, Morgan, SCSU, and NC A&T have shown what true parity of a quality nature can really look like within the MEAC with good coaching and solid recruiting. Now in this stretch run, it comes down to talent, mental toughness, and limiting mistakes to a bare minimum.

First year Morgan Head Coach Lee Hull is fully aware that he is about to coach in one of the biggest games in his still brand new head coaching career and the uniqueness of this moment. Certainly he hasn’t been around long enough to understand the impact this game could have down the road for the MEAC in the FCS playoff picture. He may not but Rod Broadway does.

Broadway will tell you and anyone else that is in within ear shot that the only game that matters is the next one and he’s absolutely right. He has treated each game this season a win and advance attitude and it has served his team well. Playoffs hopes probably aren’t on his mind these days but claiming part if not all of the MEAC title certainly is.

Privately, he knows that this week’s game represents a potential milestone point for his program and his players. For three seasons, the Aggies have been more than respectable but never a true contender, battling through probation, practice sanctions, and scholarship reductions every single day. This season marked the first time since taking the job that Broadway and his staff have been able to play on pretty much even terms in the conference and the results have been above expectations.

A win this Saturday against Morgan will send the clear message that A&T is completely back from the abyss and out from under the shadow what used to be the norm for Aggie Football.

A&T now has the chance to set the new norm; that being the Aggies will have to be reckoned with in the same breath as a Bethune or SCSU year in and year out whenever the conversation turns to winning football championships in the MEAC.

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The Aggies got a gigantic shot in the arm with the return of quarterback Kawshaun Quick who had missed almost the entire month of October with a leg injury. Quick was rusty and still not at full strength but his ¾ speed was way more than FAMU could handle as he threw for 233 yards on 16-26 passing. The Rattlers were determined not to tailback Tarik Cohen beat them which was fine as the Aggies turned to another new weapon in wide out Denzel Keyes who hauled in five catches for 129 yards and three touchdowns.

Quick’s return and Keyes emergence along with the additional bye week, could not come at a better time as the Aggies will face their most potent offensive foe since Coastal Carolina when the Morgan State Bears come into Aggie Stadium Saturday afternoon.

Morgan State and A&T have arguably the two most prolific offenses in the MEAC and while both teams but their styles are as different as night and day. A&T has embraced the role of the high powered big play offense that is capable of going the distance with a variety of athletic weapons on the ground with their read option ground attack or through the airways if defenses wish to stack the box. Either the way, the Aggies possess outstanding team speed and can put up a lot of points in the wink of an eye.

Morgan is a traditionalist smash mouth offense. The Bears are true to their nickname because they sport one big brutish offensive front that simply steamrolls defenses into the dirt by going directly at them with running back Herb Walker. The Bears are quite capable of throwing the ball in a well-conceived controlled passing game behind quarterback Moses Skillon who recently replaced senior Robert Council two weeks ago after some less than stellar passing performances.

The statistics about Morgan’s passing game does not tell the entire story. The Bears use a very intricate combinations of screens, wheel routes, and underneath crossing patterns to their tight ends and possession receivers. The Bear running game is centered on the idea of flooding and sealing a zone with big bodies up front, allowing the diminutive 5-5 Walker to sneak in behind the pile and then slide off the flanks into open space where he can be eat up big chunks yards with his quick compact style of running.

When two good offenses like these run into each other, defenses usually step to the forefront and these matchups can sometimes become defensive duels. A&T has pretty much played defense on an even keel in 2014 and after a rough patch early, the Aggies have been able to drop that rushing average allowed to 137 yards a game while Morgan State ranks near the bottom at 219 yards per game. A&T’s points allowed actually leads the conference at 16.2 just ahead of NSU and Morgan allows 25 points per outing.

Yes, no question the Bears have faced a challenging non-conference schedule but that experience has not parlayed itself into better defensive play against conference competition. Morgan State’s defensive inconsistency is still responsible for most of the losses on their 5-4 record by succumbing to a rash of second half of points that the Bear offense could not respond to in kind after halftime adjustments.

This A&T’s defense, while not like a national statistical leader as it has been in previous seasons under Broadway, has been extremely successful in leading in creating turnovers and the points allowed margin, both the best in the MEAC.

A&T’s interior linemen and linebackers will be tested like they never been this season including Coastal Carolina. A&T will have to use its superior athleticism and speed to offset Morgan’s mass and muscle. Whoever controls the line of scrimmage will most likely emerge with the win this week.

In what is shaping up to be an epic battle, an odds maker would have to instill the Aggies as a slight favorite. Odds makers don’t play the game, players do and based on seeing both of these teams at least three times, it’s about as even a ballgame as you will find on the college scene this weekend.

With this being the last home game for seniors D’Vonte Grant, Don Mattocks, Willie Ray Robinson, R.J. Canty, Quinten Todd, Donald Pinnix, Desmond Lawrence and Jose Garcia-Camacho, their commitment to their teammates, this coaching staff, their studies, and this University has been nothing short of remarkable and should be applauded when senior introductions are made this weekend. These seven seniors will lead A&T on the field one last time for one final victory in front of the home crowd.

The Aggies have dropped two straight to the Bears, both in last second come from behind scenarios where A&T dominated 58 minutes in both games only to fall short on the last drive on the last play by Morgan’s two minute offense. The incentive meter just went off the scale as far as motivation is concerned.

With two full weeks to prepare, I anticipate that A&T has not only been fine tuning their regular play but have installed a few things that will help them in what is to date the biggest game of the year. The Aggies narrowly missed on a golden chance back in September to stake their claim against CCU. They’ve played their way into now having a second chance at grabbing the brass ring. They won’t miss this time.

PREDICTION:

NC A&T – 38

Morgan – 23