Quarterback – Kingsley Ifedi (10-for-19, 53 yards, 15 carries 83 yards, 2 TDs)
Ifedi got the start, which meant the Aggies were going to look totally different from last Saturday at Furman. From the start, Ifedi looked very sharp, completing his first four passes on his first drive, and even figuring out when to keep the ball for himself. He finished off the second drive with a sleek head fake to slip between two defenders for his second TD. He actually looked better than he did in 2019. He seemed to be one step ahead of Duke interior defense, surely due to the advantage of having barely been on game film. Unfortunately, Duke figured him out and dared him to throw the rest of the game. Ifedi’s deep passes were mostly off target, but he was able to draw consecutive pass interference calls by getting balls in the area of Ron Hunt. Overall, he did a great job for being pressed into service at the last minute. True freshman Zach Yeager saw his first action of his career in garbage time and completed both of his passes.
Running Backs: Much like Furman, Duke was determined to not let Jah-Maine Martin (13 carries-20 yards) beat them. To the Aggies credit, they countered by giving Duke different looks with different backs. Kashon Baker (7-30, 1 catch, 16 yards) got eight touches and looked like he was going to break one at any time. The talented freshman Bhayshul Tuten (7-54) looked as explosive as a younger version of Martin. He will be a factor before the season’s end. We also saw Fredderick Graves (5-15, 1 catch, 3 yards) and Taymon Cooke (1-6, 4 catches, 17-yards). A lot of depth and promise was shown tonight, which is a goal of most “guarantee” games.
Wide Receivers: Week 2 gave fans another introduction to a new Aggie WR. This time it was freshman Taymon Cooke’s (4 catches, 17-yards) turn to get some action. Not much was expected out of the group this week once the quarterback change was made. We will likely see some real action in two weeks when NCCU comes to Greensboro.
Offensive Line: The improvement of the offensive line should be the story of the week. N.C. A&T was content to run right at Duke with the read option offense and met with good results. Anytime a team finishes with 208 yards rushing at a 4.3 yard per carry clip, it points out two things: commitment to the run and belief in the offensive line. Several big plays were run to the left side in particular. Props to LG Ricky Lee and LT De’Jour Simpson in combination with C Dacquari Wilson for getting it done out there. Although the game plan called for a lot of quick passes to the backs, Ifedi left the game with a clean jersey, as he was hardly challenged by Duke’s defensive line. The two first half scoring drives chewed up an astounding 19:56 of the 37:41 clock time that the Aggies had the ball. The Aggie faithful would LOVE to see that duplicated against our remaining opponents.
Defense: Well, it’s time to be honest here. Blue Death is only half of what it has been the last few seasons so far. While it may be too early to completely judge this defense and there is a huge injury factor involved, there are serious issues that need to be addressed from this unit. Over the Rod Broadway-Sam Washington era, the Aggies forced Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference teams into one-dimensional football, and capitalized on opponents’ miscues in the passing game, whether it be in blocking schemes, or poor quarterback play, which led to interceptions. The Big South is a stronger conference, particularly because of better quarterback play, and N.C. A&T will have to adjust immediately if it has championship aspirations. Dating back to the 2019 game against Norfolk State, the Aggies have allowed 250 net passing yards to half of its opponents, but 341 to Alcorn in the Celebration Bowl, 362 to Furman and 283 to Duke have raised an alarm. The old Chris Berman adage “one is an accident, two is a trend and three is a problem,” could very well apply here.
Defensive Line: Once again the front four started the game impressively, as they forced Duke to a three-and-out on its first series, punctuated by a sack from rush end Devin Harrell. Unfortunately the Blue Devils scored touchdowns on three of their next four drives once they got into a rhythm by going no-huddle. N.C. A&T could not get any pressure on Gunnar Holmburg as he found open targets mostly within three seconds. However, the Aggies were able to limit Manteo Durant to 41 yards on 15 carries. Durant was effective in the red zone with three first half TDs. This unit is still missing top performer Jermaine McDaniel and Michael Branch. We hope that these guys get healthy over the 14-day break.
Linebackers: Kyin Howard, Alex Fumbah, and Joseph Stuckey were in chase mode all night, having to cover Jalon Calhoun (5 receptions, 98 yards) and Jake Bobo (9-90) over the middle. Those two accounted for 14 of Holmberg’s 20 completions, similar to Duke’s success in 2019. The Aggies simply were a step or two behind. This was to be expected against a FBS opponent, and Duke, despite its loss to FBS newcomer Charlotte, is still an ACC opponent. The defensive scheme matters, however and fans must rely on the coaching staff to get things corrected over the layoff.
Secondary: It’s very difficult to judge here, as the highly touted FBS transfer and the most experienced player sat out with injuries. DJ Crossen is still in concussion protocol and Amir McNeill walked off the sideline with a noticeable limp at Furman. But here is where the technique and scheme come into question (Thanks, Doug Brown for pointing this out to me at the half). The Aggie cornerbacks are playing off the ball at the line of scrimmage and are allowing opponent wide receivers to curl in front of them and make catches – beyond the first down marker – prior to tackling them. It’s a frustrating pattern for a fan to watch and Duke often went to that well for backbreaking first downs. The experience for reserves Miles Simon and Aaron Harris will prove valuable down the road, however, some pressure up front, maybe by blitzing, will help the backfield. Sometimes you will get beaten but at some point, you have to step up.
Special Teams: A rather solid day for the unit. Michael Rivers punted five times for a 40 yard average and forced four fair catches with his hang time. Andrew Brown made all of his kicks, The Duke return game was a factor once, as Josh Blackwell returned a punt 29 yards to set Duke’s fourth TD.
Overall, the season so far has raised one question that the Aggies and the coaching staff must answer going into the break. When will the best version of the N.C. A&T offense and defense show up to the party? It’s been a while since the Aggies started a season 0-2, but that is likely going to continue as the scheduling does not get any easier in the next few years. In addition to the return match up at Furman, the Aggies will battle Elon, North Dakota State, James Madison, Wake Forest, and Georgia over the next few seasons in games one or two.
Hopefully, the nicks, bruises and if any, COVID-19 issues will subside and the Aggies can open the home slate with a victory against arch rival NCCU on Sept. 25.