N.C. A&T went into the halftime locker room feeling fortunate that it trailed by a mere 10-7 margin at halftime despite being outplayed by rival S.C. State. With the help of a few big plays, and some Bulldog miscues, the Aggies fought back and took a convincing 27-17 victory over the Bulldogs in Orangeburg, S.C. The win continued the Aggies’ mastery of its former MEAC rival, as it was the sixth straight win in the series and third consecutive in Dawson Stadium, a feat that has never happened before. More importantly, the win was the second in a row after three straight losses, and put N.C. A&T in range of a winning season in 2021, as they head into the season finale against Gardner-Webb next week in Truist Stadium.
Quarterback – Why not? After an ineffective three series by starter Jalen Fowler (1 of 6, 10 yards, sacked twice in three series), Kingsley Ifedi was brought in, as usual, to change up the look of the Aggie offense. But an interesting thing happened, Ifedi remained out on the field and went three quarters. Even more strange, Ifedi dropped back to pass on a 3rd down in his first series and threw a deep out to Ron Hunt –his first pass attempt since Duke. While the pass was off target, just taking that chance opened up some running room for the Aggie running backs. Ifedi (8-of-18, 125 yards, 2 TDs) not only made attempts downfield, but threw with touch and gave his receivers chances to make plays. Ifedi’s first career touchdown pass was not perfect, but Nick Dobson snatched it around the back of the defender and held on in the end zone. Ifedi did miss some passes throwing the intermediate routes. That could be attributed to rust and not getting enough snaps in practice. The second touchdown happened on an on-time throw to Taymon Cooke, who ducked under the safety’s tackle attempt and kept running until he reached paydirt, which gave the Aggies some momentum midway through the third quarter. Now the question remains: what do you do next week? Freshman Zack Yeager can play against Gardner-Webb without losing his redshirt, so does he get a shot? Does Ifedi start with a game plan similar to his start at Duke? Or do the Aggies continue to go with a regressing Fowler? They have nothing to lose now as the lone goal is to win the game against the Bulldogs at home.
Running Back – Jah-Maine Martin (16 carries, 77 yards, 1 TD) got stronger as the game went on, something that we had seen a few times this season. He finally showed the breakaway speed that wooed NFL scouts two seasons ago on a 33-yard TD that put the Aggies ahead for good just before the end of the third quarter. It really helps Martin when the Aggies can get vertical action in the passing game, as safeties are forced to play a bit deeper, and bring more running lanes into the formation. Martin cannot help when defenses run blitz and catch him before he gets started in his own backfield, and that has been the general story of 2021. But getting that touchdown seemed to invigorate his teammates and they played an inspired fourth quarter. Kashon Baker was worked in for a few carries (6-19) but had a critical 15-yard run on the drive that ended in Martin’s touchdown.
Wide Receivers – When you get few opportunities, you have to make the most of them. Credit Nick Dobson and Taymon Cooke for doing just that. Dobson’s touchdown was an incredible individual effort, and rivals Ron Hunt’s knee catch against North Alabama for the offensive play of the year. Dobson has an incredible four TD’s on five receptions this season, further increasing the discussion about the offense’s use of the tight end. Cooke has shown flashes of speed all season on special teams, so it was quite fun to see him make an explosive play in the open field. He finished with 190 yards of total offense on three touches. It has been a long year for the Aggie receiving group and once again, leading receiver Korey Banks sat out today for what has been determined to be a disciplinary matter, his second straight missed contest.
Offensive Line – Although the total offense numbers are not gaudy, the Aggie offensive line did its job and eventually asserted itself when it mattered most, the 80-yard drive that ended with Martin’s touchdown run. To their credit, Ifedi and Fowler had plenty of time to throw, even to checkdowns, and SC State was content to rush with just four early on. The three sacks were clearly due to the quarterbacks holding the ball a bit too long. After getting virtually no push in the first half, the right side of the line moved forward and Martin, Baker and Ifedi picked their spots. Even with the Aggies’ success in the MEAC, the Bulldog front seven has traditionally handled the Aggie offensive line. Today’s results were not a surprise.
We know that overall the play needs to improve, but I will gladly take the effort from the quintet today.
Defensive Line – Yikes. After playing all last week across the Charleston Southern line of scrimmage, the defensive line was not quite there Saturday. It was not a good sight to see SC State freshman Kendrel Flowers continuously gash the interior line for 160 yards on just 15 carries. It was a rehashing of the Hampton game. But the line caught a break when starting quarterback Corey Fields injured his shoulder late in the first half and did not return, changing the Bulldogs’ plan of attack. Octavius Pringle and Robert Porcher, II (2 sacks and eight tackles combined) put pressure on Fields, who was ineffective throwing the football (6 of 19, 58 yards).
In came Quincy Hill, who is probably a better option at quarterback overall. Hill finished 10-of-18 for 136 yards, but a 57-yarder to Shaq Davis came on one play. Credit the line for not allowing Hill to get outside and break contain. But why did SC State go away from Flowers? He touched the ball THREE TIMES in the second half, runs of 33, 29 in the third quarter and a 5-yard run in the fourth quarter. But the play of the day belonged to Devin Harrell, who timed a Hill pass to the flat perfectly, and jumped to snare the ball out of midair and ran into the end zone to seal the game.
Linebackers – Jacob Roberts (10 tackles, seven solos) was all over the field, as usual. Clearly he is an all Big South First Team player and it would be a travesty if he does not make the team at this point. While Joseph Stuckey and Alex Fumbah (4 tackles apiece) were solid, the group got caught out of position several times on Flowers’ runs. I consider this an anomaly, but there will be some correctable items to look at in film study this week.
Secondary – I can finally say that with the exception of one play, the Aggie secondary held their own in coverage against quality talent. While Corey Fields misfired on a lot of targets, the defenders were with the receivers step-for-step. The most dangerous of the group, Shaq Davis (5 catches for 96 yards) had one big play, but that was a miscommunication between true freshman Ty Williams and safety Najee Reams. Miles Davis held his own against Will Vereen (2 catches, 15 yards). Williams (6 solo tackles) and Pittsburgh transfer Mychale Salahuddin looked solid playing safety, and with Reams playing corner, I think this unit will play its best on Saturday. Gardner-Webb does not hesitate to throw the football, so I expect Davis and Reams to be tested in one-on-one situations.
First, let’s mention the ugly: Michael Rivers had a punt deflect off his own man in his backfield, which allowed the ball to go straight up in the air and in the arms of S.C. State, which returned it for a score. The bad: Andrew Brown pushed two field goals and an extra point wide right. He’s missed his last five field goal attempts. Bhayshul Tuten had a punt go off his face mask and let a kickoff bounce in front of him, which cost A&T field position. Tuten is still getting his on-the-job training and some more practice with the special teams unit in the off season will have him a bit more prepared to handle return duties. But as much as there was negative, there was PLENTY of positive, and the best unit of the team put its best foot forward. Rivers averaged 44 yards per punt and kicked A&T out of its own end zone on three of its first six possessions. The most impressive one of the day was his first, when he crushed a 62-yarder from eight yards deep in the end zone that forced a FAIR CATCH. Taymon Cooke had a pair of 66 yard kickoff returns, unfortunately, they resulted in the pair of Brown missed field goals. Jacob Roberts struck once again with his second blocked punt of the season, one play before the Dobson touchdown. And credit the special teams for not being fooled by the late fake field goal attempt by the Bulldogs. This unit has had a prominent role in every one of the five victories this season, and should be commended. Once concern going into the finale is the kicking game. One thing we have learned is that points are at a premium, and anytime the Aggies move the ball inside the 40, having a reliable kicker is paramount. The snap, hold, and kick should all be in unison, and going back to week one, it has been an adventure.
The long road of the 2021 season has finally reached the end. Some fans in this forum cannot wait to end the season and fast forward to signing day in February 2022. But improving the talent level is just one element of the problem solving this team needs to do to prepare for 2022. The coaching staff has a lot to do to adjust to the Big South conference play philosophy. It has been clear that the way to win the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference is not the same path to winning the Big South. Whatever team that will place last in the Big South is guaranteed to have a more efficient offense than S.C. State, the 2021 MEAC champion. A better team would have likely beaten N.C. A&T, which won with 86 rushing yards and 221 total. We have harped on the miscues and inefficiencies of this team all year. But with the move to a higher level of competition demands a higher level of play. Saturday we will celebrate some seniors who have done their part to raise the standard of Aggie football. They arrived in a championship level program and have done their part. Let’s hope that the players that are left behind understand that continuing the winning tradition on and off the field is a priority when wearing the blue and gold.