N.C. A&T continues to improve from week-to-week in all three phases and it showed in the 41-14 victory over Big South conference foe Robert Morris at Truist Stadium. The win will go down in history as the first for the Aggies in their new league, and the beginning of a new era in this proud program. Even with the dominant victory, there is still work to be done, and time is running short. Yesterday’s results around the league should serve as eye-opening, especially for the Blue Death defense, with one more “warmup” tilt remaining. N.C. A&T will host winless North Alabama at Truist next week, then the “meat and potatoes” portion of the schedule awaits.
I am amazed at how well the Aggies special teams are playing after a mini-disaster at Furman. The unit was so dominant that it once again led directly to double-digit points during the game. The two biggest plays of the game were made by this unit, and both were made when Robert Morris attempted to kick away from our return men. The first was when Colonial kicker Nick Bisceglia put a pooch kickoff in the air with 23 ticks left in the first half. Not only were the Aggies prepared, they were able to set up a small wedge and Taymon Cook sprinted up the sideline for a 35-yard return, which put the ball at RMU 45. Two plays later, Zach Leslie made his return (more on that later). The second happened when George Souders shanked a 20-yard punt to the A&T 49. Four plays later Jah-Maine Martin scored, restoring a two score lead and taking the air out of RMU. Andrew Brown scored 12 points and launched several angled kickoffs, while Michael Rivers had the afternoon off.
N.C. A&T scored on all six of their red zone chances, including five touchdowns. The effort was incredibly balanced with 222 yards through the air and 224 by the ground attack. Offensive efficiency has been a point of emphasis this season and coordinator Chris Barnette should be commended. This was a near perfect example of what the Aggie offense should be. N.C. A&T converted on four of seven third downs: one miss resulted in a field goal, one was converted on fourth down, and the other ended on an interception via a tipped ball. In fact the unit was so perfect that punter Michael Rivers didn’t touch the field but to hold on extra points and field goals.
Quarterback – I was impressed with the steady performance of Jalen Fowler, who looks more and more confident every week. Fowler completed 16-of-20 passes for 206 yards and two TDs and an interception on a batted ball. He also rushed for 76 yards, including a 31-yarder late in the first half. Fowler once again looked incredibly tough to tackle as he rumbled forward. Barnette has called a few quarterback draws and will definitely use him as a threat. We would like to see him use his large frame for quarterback sneaks on occasion, especially at the goal line.
Running Back – Jah-Maine Martin showed more flashes of his old self as he was able to turn the corner full speed and run by people on his way to 105 yards on 14 carries and his first two touchdowns of the season. You could audibly hear sighs of relief and “thank goodness” when Martin kept his legs churning after being hit at the five-yard line, and his teammates pushed him to the end zone for the final points of the day. The Aggies have an embarrassment of riches at the position, so much that we have not seen enough of rising star freshman Bhayshul Tuten, who scored on an off tackle run from 18 yards out for the Aggies’ first TD, his second in two weeks. Tuten is quietly averaging 7.8 yards per carry so far on his 12 attempts. I’m all for him getting as many touches as possible, even on special teams.
Wide Receivers – Another big day for the Aggie wideouts, but the biggest catch of the day came from returning captain Zach Leslie. The unit has been dubbed “JUMP BALL U” by Blue Death Valley posters, and Leslie showed why as he took a high ball away from a RMU defender for a 22-yard TD to end the first half. On the play, Leslie literally boxed out as if he were in Club Corbett and extended his 6’4 frame to secure the catch. He tweeted after the game, “Like Julio [Jones] with the Falcons, I can make a play.” So now the corps are whole again, and that’s never a good sign for a defense, as the Aggie ground game seems to be hitting its stride. Meanwhile, freshman Elijah Bowick (five catches for 78 yards) has emerged as a real threat in the past two weeks, and Ron Hunt (4-68) burned the Colonial secondary for a 40-yard catch on yet another perfect throw from Fowler. It seems like any of the new faces can have a big day at any time, and that’s why this may be the best receiving unit in A&T history when it is all said and done. I’m serious.
Offensive Line – It was amazing to watch the Aggie quintet improve their performance from last week. There were 15 first downs by way of the ground game, and I’m positive 80 percent of those were run on the right side of the line of scrimmage. Lawrence Lagrone and Bilal Ali lived on the RMU line of scrimmage all day, notching several pancake blocks, which paved an alley for all three of the Aggie touchdown runs. In addition to the 446 yards of total offense, Jalen Fowler was never touched in his own backfield or felt any pressure at all from RMU. Fowler was open so much that he could find second and third reads, or simply take off down the field and reach the secondary nearly untouched. This was one of the best efforts of the line in years and it showed in the results. If this continues, the Aggies will be a factor in the Big South championship.
In the first half it seemed the Aggie defense was a step slow, whether it was pursuing Colonial quarterback George Martin, or chasing speedster Alijah Jackson. But eventually Blue Death made the appropriate adjustments and slammed the door on RMU after Johnathan Wynn caught them napping on a 40-yard TD run to make the score 20-14 early in the third quarter. After that play the Colonials managed just 43 yards of offense for the rest of the contest. N.C. A&T tends to play coverage as they expect the front three or four to get home. Martin did not have a huge day passing (17-31-203-1 TD, 1 INT), but repeatedly converted 3rd and long yardage situations to keep the game close in the first half. RMU ended the game 9-of-14 on third downs for the day, but could not run the football at all, (54 yards on 27 carries), which prevented them from keeping pace with the Aggie offense. With head coach Sam Washington’s description of the Big South Conference as a league that passes to set up the run, Aggie fans have voiced their opinions on whether or not Blue Death needs to bring some pressure with the linebackers or possibly a defensive back. That’s not what the defensive philosophy is, however, technique is still being coached up, especially in the secondary. Several Big South teams put up major passing numbers in their games last week including Hampton, Monmouth and Gardner Webb, and the Aggies will have to deal with those teams en route to the title.
Defensive Line – For the 51st time since Washington joined the Aggie coaching staff, his defense allowed fewer than 80 yards rushing to an opponent. Once again, the line plugged gaps virtually all game long. RMU tailback Alijah Jackson could barely manage positive yardage (15 carries for a net 18 yards rushing). Jermaine McDaniel has clearly made his presence felt since his return last week. He had two sacks among his five tackles and also added two QB pressures. This line is overdue for a dominant pass rushing performance, as they got in Martin’s face several times in the 33 passing plays, even with three down lineman. This group is still learning and I’m looking forward to their improvement by the time they get to see the triple option of Kennesaw State and the air attacks of Hampton and Monmouth over the next month.
Linebackers – Richie Kittles, Jacob Roberts and Kyin Howard are the glue to this defense. Kittles (six tackles, 2.5 for loss) was outstanding against the run from sideline to sideline. Roberts (five tackles, 1.5 for loss) made the defensive play of the day when he read an out pattern to the sideline and picked it off to set up a Jah-Maine Martin touchdown run that put the game to bed essentially. We need to see more from the group in pass coverage, as receivers found holes in the zone and were able to extend drives on third down. If the linebackers can figure out how to cut off the middle, this defense can be dangerous with its team speed. Another note: Tyquan King pounced on a fumble recovery, his team leading third turnover of the season.
Secondary – Najee Reams (team high eight tackles) continues to be the mainstay of the defense, while Amir McNeil (six tackles, two passes defended) actually got tested a few times, surprisingly. Miles Simon (four tackles) continues to fill in the absence of Va. Tech transfer D.J. Crossen, whom we expected to see, but did not play. Plays were made when needed to be by the secondary, which is still in a trial by fire. In my opinion, N.C. A&T’s defensive philosophy is likely the best thing for the team right now. I just wish that the Aggies could “play the sticks” better on long yardage situations. I understand that refusing to get beat deep is THE priority, as there is a preference for the offense to use the clock to score vs. the quick strike. However, the Aggie secondary plays so much zone coverage that receivers simply turn and plant themselves right at the first down yardage needed. This puts so much pressure on the defensive line to get to the quarterback. Eleven passing first downs were way too much to give up to Robert Morris. Although eventually stops were made in the second half as pressure wore down the Colonial offensive line, this is something that needs to be fixed, or could be exploited.
There was a lot to like about the performance, but Aggie fans have a right to be cautiously optimistic. The upcoming game against North Alabama is the final chance to fine-tune things before the REAL conference play begins. However, a message was sent loud and clear today. The Aggies are here and are ready to challenge all comers. October is here!