Halloween is just three weeks away, but the Blue Death Valley would rather keep that away from the Truist Stadium field during the Greatest Homecoming on Earth. N.C. A&T needed a bit of divine intervention and a heroic effort from true freshman Bhayshul Tuten in order to escape with a 38-34 victory over North Alabama in front of the home crowd at “The Bank.”
Tuten, who finished with 166 all purpose yards on the day, took a swing pass up the left sideline and broke a pair of tackles en route to a 60-yard TD for the eventual final margin with 6:24 left in regulation. Herbert Booker sealed the win when he intercepted Rett Files’ pass with under two minutes left.
The game provided Aggie fans a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde feeling, as the home team rolled out to a 24-7 lead and had the ball at midfield for the final possession of the first half. But three of the next six offensive plays were turnovers, including the opening two drives of the third quarter. Both of the second half turnovers were converted to Lions touchdowns and the Aggies were suddenly in a survival test.
North Alabama would eventually take a 34-31 lead midway through the fourth quarter on a five yard pass from Files to Nick Haynes, but that set the stage for Tuten, who had earlier extended his touchdown scoring streak to four games.
A near perfect day for two-time reigning Big South Special Teams Player of the Week Andrew Brown once again, as he buried a season best 49-yard field goal into a head wind in the first quarter. He connected on all five extra points and impressively placed four of seven kickoffs into the end zone. Brown has not missed an extra point and has connected on eight straight field goal attempts. Mike Rivers almost had another day off, as he punted just once for 43 yards with no return. I am all for moving Tuten into the kick return lineup, but he will need a little more practice returning punts. He will break a return very soon as a couple of shoestring tackles were the only things stopping him from long returns. Korey Banks also looked good returning kickoffs. Eventually SOMEONE will reach the end zone.
Quarterback – Jaylen Fowler (14-of-20, 201 yards, 3 TD’s 1 INT, 1 Fumble) was a mixed bag today. The tape will reveal that several receivers were open down the deep middle that he missed and checked down to the backs or the crossing route receiver. He also held the ball for a bit too long and lost the football to kill a scoring chance late in the first half. A bad read led to an interception in the second half, and the ball was taken out of his hands for much of the third and halfway through the fourth. But prior to all that, he was in rhythm and on target. The wheel route to Kashon Baker for a touchdown was a thing of beauty. He later hit Zach Leslie on another jump ball in the end zone. He also corrected an earlier mistake when he pitched the ball at the perfect time to Tuten for a touchdown run. Many of the missed throws and receivers are correctable in film study, and we will need him at his best over the difficult portion of the schedule coming up.
Running Back – The future is now. It is time to take the training wheels off and let Bhayshul Tuten loose. He has the burst, the power and the breakaway speed. While Jah-Maine Martin (19 carries for 75 yards) gets closer and closer to the old Martin, Tuten (six carries, 60 yards, 1 TD, one catch, 60 yards, game winning TD) appears to be already at that level. There is going to be a calling among Aggie fans to give him more touches, and with good reason. He’s scored in every game but at Duke this season. Kashon Baker (six carries for 51 yards, 1 TD, 3 catches, 42 yards , 1TD) finished off a 16-yard touchdown run with a couple of juke moves that left defenders grasping air. The wheel route touchdown was very similar to one Baker could not hold on to in the end zone against Furman, and it was great to see Coach Barnette return to that play call.
Wide Receivers – A steady flow of action and big plays made for a typical afternoon for Jump Ball U. Zach Leslie (2 catches, 48 yards, 1 TD) got into the scorebook again with another jump ball touchdown from Fowler. Ron Hunt (3-19) made a CRITICAL catch on a 4th-and-8 when he caught an errant pass that deflected off a defender’s back onto his lap. Elijah Bowick (2-58) also made two deep catches that flipped the field position for the Aggies. But opportunities were limited when NC A&T was hit with the turnover bug and tried to run out the clock instead of turning on the gas in the second half. Barnette and Fowler need to trust these guys more and take more shots down the field. Plays are ready to be made at any time.
Offensive Line – The line continued to dominate as expected. N.C. A&T literally ran to either side it wanted, especially in the first half. After UNA made some defensive adjustments, the line countered with more pulling action off tackle and play action passes. Fowler had plenty of time to check down to his secondary receivers and the running back trio found daylight when it needed it most: the two scoring possessions. Runners averaged five yards per carry. The highlight play of the first half happened when DeJour Simpson showed the presence of mind to dive and made a beautiful catch of a batted ball.
Well, It’s time to tell the real truth about Blue Death: It’s not scaring any opponent when it attempts to pass. The passing numbers for Rhett Files (21-31-310-3-1) do not truly reflect how effective and damaging the Lions offense was, mainly because of the shortened fields given by the three Aggie turnovers and the eight, that’s right, EIGHT, first downs from Aggie defensive penalties. Fortunately, UNA shot itself in the foot multiple times with penalties of their own. Things may get worse: it is feared that Amir McNeil may be out again after he got taken out by a block on the UNA long touchdown in the first half. He did not return, forcing Booker to finish the contest, and the Lions took advantage. An inexperienced secondary and a pass rush that doesn’t get home enough with four rushers are ingredients for a disaster. Despite how well it played in the first half the defense was totally torched and unless a miracle happens, this is how it is going to be for a while.
Defensive Line – I still believe that the Aggie coaching staff is asking too much of the rotation on the defensive line. Four sacks and two pressures on 36 dropbacks is still not enough to provide help for the linebackers and secondary. While it did not help that they were on the field for 18:53 of the second half thanks to the turnovers, Blue Death needed assistance to be a threat to Files when he dropped back. It’s time to get creative. Jermaine McDaniel (one sack, three pressures) was the only effective starter on the line, however, Janoris Robertson (5 tackles, ½ sack) and Karfa Kaba (4 tackles, ½ sack) put in work on the day, helping limit UNA to 69 net yards rushing on 27 carries. Parker Driggers burned them with a zone read for a rare two rushing touchdown game against the Aggie defense.
Linebackers – Jacob Roberts (12 tackles) was everywhere today, but he was charged with chasing Driggers and slot receiver Cortez Hall (11 catches for 76 yards). Jazir Staton (5 tackles) and Kyin Howard (4 tackles) also made some plays against the run. The group missed starters Alex Fumba and Joseph Stuckey, who were both seen on the sideline. It seems that Co-defensive Courtney Coard is in a bit of a pickle. Correcting the coverage errors is going to take time, and while Kennesaw State presents a totally different issue with its triple option, the remaining opponents are not hesitant to throw often. Good luck.
Secondary – One play in the first half epitomized the day the Aggie secondary had. Lion WR Dexter Boykin lined up in the right slot and slid underneath the defense and had a linebacker chasing him, a whole mismatch. Boykin caught the pass and turned upfield and cut back inside, outrunning two would-be tacklers for a 61-yard touchdown. Meanwhile, Amir McNeal, A&T’s fastest player, was about two yards from catching Boykin but was nailed with a legal high block. He immediately went into the player tent after the play and never returned to the field. Redshirt freshman Herbert Booker, the Aggies’ fifth corner, had to go in and receive his trial by fire, along with the other corner, Miles Simon, who continues to fill in for injured DJ Crossen. The second half was a nightmare for the secondary, as the defensive line wore down. Just like that, other than Najee Reams (six tackles) and rover Richie Kittles (five tackles), there are very few experienced personnel in the secondary. It is what it is at this point. While there will be discussion on the message boards about discipline and coaching, I attribute this to simply how difficult it is to step up and replace a starter. There is a reason why these players on the field were backups. The reality is that there is no “fixing” this. Fans will have to hope that these guys can improve or the offense can sustain enough drives to keep them off the field.
Overall, a win is a win. In spite of all the fan debating and disappointment about the poor second half performance, the Aggies have won their three home games prior to homecoming, which was a goal. Now, the TRUE test begins with two road games. It has been A LONG time since the Aggies have faced a traditional triple option offense like #17 Kennesaw State has. The discussion of assignment defensive football becomes paramount. From now until November, it is essentially playoff football. The offense is clearly good enough to mask the inefficiencies of the defense, which will be good enough to finish the season with a winning record. But to win the Big South and compete in the NCAA playoff, N.C. A&T must go back to basics, as in “doing chicken.” That has been the hallmark of Aggie teams since the Rod Broadway era began and has continued under Sam Washington. It is time to be better than good and cut out the unnecessary penalties (12 accepted for 127 yards) and blown assignments. It is time to finish drives and take this league. Simply put, it is time.