Fargo, ND – The matchup between N.C. A&T and No. 1 ranked North Dakota State was initially described as a measuring stick for a program in transition as it prepares for competition in the Colonial Athletic Association next season. It was originally scheduled for the ill-fated 2020 season, in which the Aggies would have featured several players expected to return from the 2019 Celebration Bowl championship team. Fast forward two years later and the current Aggies squad proved no match for the defending national champions. The Bison scored five touchdowns on their six possessions of the first half en route to a 43-3 victory over the Aggies in the Fargodome.
Not too many things went right this week, and it seemed that each Aggie mistake led directly to Bison points. The final statistics were a bit misleading for most of the contest. N.C. A&T held the ball for 35 minutes of the contest, but did very little on third downs (6-16) and committed three turnovers. The Aggies also committed six penalties for 80 yards to add to their nine for 95 yards from last week. Of the six penalties, three were of the dead ball unsportsmanlike conduct variety and those type are particularly frustrating to coaching staffs and Aggie faithful. As we go into the position breakdown, let’s hope that a solution is found next week, because the grumblings are getting louder in Aggie Nation.
This week, Sam Washington stuck with his two quarterback platoon. Zach Yeager got the start and led the Aggies downfield for their initial field goal but did nothing afterwards. Jalen Fowler came in and didn’t seem comfortable with the offense and the ball security issues from last year continue to plague him. The two quarterbacks combined for all three turnovers, directly leading to 21 points for the Bison. This doesn’t include a dropped “pick-six” by NDSU safety Dawson Weber, who returned a Fowler fumble 79 yards for the game’s final score. While the Aggies were able to move the ball against NCCU via the air, not much happened this week. Yeager completed just one of his five passes and couldn’t get anything going as the Bison kept him botted inside the pocket. Fowler completed 12 of his 14 passes but managed 45 yards on those completions with 29 of those coming on two catches. NDSU got solid pressure from its front four to take away any activity downfield and eventually began to anticipate the screen portion of the Aggies offense. In fact, one screen turned disastrous when Yeager threw the ball inside and Zach Leslie lost the possession battle with Bison defensive back James Kaczor, which created an interception.
Bhayshul Tuten proved to be the bright spot today, ending with 127 yards on 24 carries. He exploded through holes and was tough to bring down all day. Needless to say, when Tuten has the ball in his hands, the Aggies looked formidable. He personally accounted for five of the Aggies 15 first downs. Wesley Graves (three rushes, 10 yards, 1 catch, 14 yards) also ran hard over opposing defenders and converted a rare third and long with a wheel route catch from Fowler. Of note, Charlie Dixon (three rushes, 6 yards) got into the books for the first time. Expect more from him as the coaching personnel figures him into the offense. By far this tandem was the most aggressive unit. I don’t mind if they get more carries next week at Duke.
It has to be disappointing for the wide receiver corps to not get consistent quarterback play so far. There is plenty of talent and speed among the group but they have very little to show for it in the first two weeks. The Bison had no fear of the Aggies ability to throw the ball downfield outside of the hash marks. Taymon Cook was the only receiver to catch a pass outside of a screen. But Cook was also run down in the backfield on an attempted jet sweep. Twice that play has been run for a total of -14 yards, and it could be set up better with some misdirection. Yeager threw a couple of times down the sideline early but both passes were well defended. NDSU turned up the pressure, which limited the opportunities for the passing game to be effective.
The return of right guard Lawrence Lagrone settled things down in the running game, and Tuten took advantage, particularly on the left side of the line, a credit to left tackle Ricky Lee and new center Cesar Minarro. Unfortunately, the line did not help passing game that much. Tariq Stewart was beaten by Bison end Spencer Waege for two of the Bison’s three sacks, one which led to a fumble. NDSU confused the Aggies with line stunts and blitzes while also managing to keep the quarterbacks within the collapsing pocket. It will be interesting to see if former center Dacquari Wilson (now playing guard) will return to his position and Minarro will return to guard. This is a veteran unit and I expect them to improve and be much better by week four, the home opener against S.C. State. I don’t believe the Aggies will see a defensive unit as good as this one, including next week’s opponent, Duke.
A lot went wrong today, in several ways. It was very tough to ask the defense to make stops after sudden change. The average field position for the game was NDSU was the Bison 41 yard line, including two possessions which started at the Aggie 31 and 1 yard lines after turnovers. Frustrations boiled over eventually, highlighted by multiple unsportsmanlike conduct penalties called against Shomari Wallace. NDSU ran 48 plays of offense and averaged 5.7 yards per play. But what was concerning for the defensive line was seeing the line get pushed backward at 4.8 yards per carry. With the running game going, the Bison quarterbacks faced minimal pressure on their 17 pass attempts.
Once again, Tyquan King (team-leading nine tackles, four solos) was all over the field and showed by he is top billed, along with Jacob Roberts (five tackles, one pass broken up). There were several passing plays the linebackers would like to have defended better. On the Bison’s opening possession, top receiver Zach Mathis ran from his slot position by both inside linebackers in the middle of the field, caught Cam Miller’s pass and ran into the end zone untouched for a touchdown. Joseph Stuckey got turned around by a great individual move by Bison fullback Hunter Luepke, which led to a touchdown catch. Miscommunications among the linebackers and secondary allowed Bison targets to run wide open through the zone, similar to last week. The coaching staff has to change up something here. The philosophy does not seem to be working.
The backs were outmatched on the perimeter and over the middle. Safety Tywayne Williams will have to take a look at the film this week, as he did not take the best angles defending the slot receiver and tight ends. Rover Avarion Cole (three tackles, one for loss) had an improved week and Karon Prunty was aggressive as usual. One thing I have noticed is that the perimeter defenders are sure tacklers. Eventually, we will see them tested in one-on-one coverage very soon, quite possibly next week.
After a rough start, the Aggie special teams settled down. Bison returner Kobe Johnson had kickoff returns of 48 and 42 yards. The returns were well blocked and Johnson accelerated until the last line of defense brought him down. Caleb Brickhouse had a solid day, with a 44.8 yard average on four punts, with only one returned for four yards. Brickhouse is quickly becoming a weapon with his high arching punts. Andrew Brown has been “money” with his field goal attempts, as he buried a 38-yarder, his third make in three attempts. Brown averaged 63 yards on his kickoffs, just shy of the end zone.
After two weeks, N.C. A&T has yet to identify itself as a football team, and it may not be fully realized after next week at an improved Duke. The known element is Tuten, who is as good as advertised. Brown and Brickhouse are serviceable special teams’ players but the kick coverage has to be better. The Aggies were a 35-point underdog today officially and for quite a while, it look like the spread was going to be doubled. For a half, North Dakota State truly looked unstoppable, even when they decided to run the football with their reserves.
We now understand why Washington has not decided who the signal caller will be this season. Fowler clearly looked a shell of himself, even from last year and still holds on to the ball for too long in the pocket, and compounds the issue with his ball security. Yeager can make plays with his scrambling ability but has accuracy issues. I believe practice and game reps next week will decide who will lead the Aggies into the home opener against S.C. State in two weeks. However, Duke, which is coming off a 463-yard offensive performance at Northwestern, looks to be much better behind new coach Mike Elko’s balanced offense.
The penalties, blown coverages, and the overall lack of execution on offense are not what the Aggie faithful expected in the first two games of the season. Many of these mistakes prevented N.C. A&T from a winning season in 2021, and one can only hope the players take a step forward in improving as they prepare for Big South competition.