Well, that was relaxing.
After N.C. A&T showed two different teams in their 0-2 start, things looked back to normal in the friendly confines of Aggie Stadium, save for a few audio issues. However, what could be heard was an excited crowd after the Aggies jumped out to a 30-3 lead before settling for a 37-14 victory Saturday night. The Aggies scored on six of their first eight possessions. I said locally and via my social media posts that talent wise, A&T was at least two touchdowns better and predicted a 28-14 score. Needless to say I am very happy to have been correct, and after seeing some of the Big South results this week, I believe the Aggies will be ready to compete for a championship THIS SEASON.
Whoa. Aggie fans finally got to see the talent of Kashon Baker, featured back, for the first time. He has shown an ability to run in the tackle box this year, a testament to his hard work in the weight room during the time off. We’ve known him from his punt returns early in his career, to his effectiveness on screen passes (look at his 2019 catch-and-run TD against Bethune-Cookman). He plays a bit smaller than Aggie legend Tarik Cohen, but he gave fans flashbacks tonight. That overshadowed a solid effort from Jalen Fowler, who looked ok returning from his injury. He is still working on getting his timing down with all of the new receiving threats we have, so expect game-to-game improvement over this homestand. One notable stretch tonight brought pause: the final drive of the first half. A weakness of this team that it somehow has overcome during this successful run is situational clock management. N.C. A&T nearly cost itself points by not calling a timeout immediately with first down at the Eagle 24 with 16 seconds left. The clock ran down to seven seconds before the timeout. Of course, the result of the timeout ended beautifully with a touchdown pass with one second left, but fans would like to see more time if more shots were needed into the end zone. Nine penalties, particularly multiple hard-count offsides, were noticeable, but not drive killers.
Quarterback: Jalen Fowler returned to the starting lineup and played with the reserves deep in the fourth quarter until Zach Yeager mopped up with a few snaps. Fowler wasn’t perfect and took a bit to warm up, but found a groove midway through the first half. He finished 18-for-28 for 161 yards and a 24-yard game-breaking touchdown to redshirt freshman Elijah Bowick, ANOTHER new Aggie to touch the football this season. He also looked confident when he took off to scramble and even had a couple of defenders bounce off of him, similar to another Aggie QB, Kylil Carter.
Running Back: Baker got a career high 12 carries from the backfield for a career high 127 yards with a 47-yard touchdown. Baker has gotten to the second level often on screen passes outside the hash marks. To see him gash NCCU’s defense repeatedly was refreshing. It also highlighted the struggles of Jah-Maine Martin (10 carries, 34 yards), who seemed a step slower than usual. Current Big South Rookie of the Week Bhayshul Tuten (3-25, 1 TD) and Fredderick Graves (6-23) saw some action, as the Aggies’ depth at the position continued to show itself.
Wide Receiver: Once again, strength in numbers was the key to the day. In addition to Bowick’s first ever catch, seven wide receivers caught 12 of Fowler’s 18 completions. You can never have too much depth at receiver, and while we have not seen big plays down the field for the most part, you have to appreciate the efficiency of the short to intermediate passing game. The Aggies seemed to move the ball at will when needed. Catching passes is not the only thing the receivers do though. Korey Banks and Quinzel Lockhart had key blocks in Baker’s TD run and were consistently locking their defensive backs to extend running plays. Baker finished with six runs of 11 yards or more on the night, including a 24-yarder.
Offensive Line: Another day, another great effort for the Aggie offensive line. When the quarterback has time to go to second and third options, and running backs get beyond the second level untouched, defenses tend to have long days. N.C A&T rolled up 427 yards of offense, with 254 on the ground (6.9 yards per carry) and converted half of its 16 third downs. It’s unfortunate that the Big South Conference does not have a Lineman of the Week Award.
With NCCU starter Davius Richard starting after missing all but one play last week, Blue Death looked to the age-old formula of stuffing the run and generating pressure against the pass with rushing just four down lineman. Against the least talented of the three teams on the Aggies have played, this worked to near perfection. NCCU managed just 54 yards rushing on 3.1 yards per carry. Richard was able to break contain and had 29 yards rushing, but was largely ineffective when the game was competitive. The Eagles could not sustain drives (3-of-14 third downs) with Richard being forced to throw over the middle for most of his yardage. Richard finished 21-for-35 for 225 yards with an interception, while 77 of those yards came on a late fourth quarter touchdown with the game well in hand.
Defensive Line: Welcome back Jermaine McDaniel!!! A post practice interview with HBCU Gameday’s Lut Williams revealed that he was ready to play, and business picked up immediately. McDaniel dropped Richard for one of the Aggies’ two sacks, and the front four kept Richard on his heels all game long, especially Robert Porcher, II, who was credited with two pressures. Michael Branch also returned and anchored the opposite end along with true freshman Henry Daniel, who is off to a strong start. Six tackles were made for losses on the defensive line and most of those were backs trapped in their own backfield. The line rotation has had to go a bit deeper due to injury, and wholesale substitutions were happening in the second half. I can only see this as a positive as the team prepares for Big South play.
Linebacker: Jacob Roberts (four tackles) had a bigger role in this game (see Special Teams) but Joseph Stuckey (three tackles, one for loss) and rover Richie Kittles played well against the short passing attack of the Eagles. Kyin Howard (three tackles) also has turned into a run stuffer. Reserve Tyquan King grabbed his second interception, which leads the team. This corp of linebackers get tested more often than most in the passing game and they had solid coverage all night. When you come off the field 11 times out of 14 on third downs including multiple 3rd and 3’s or less, the job is getting done here.
Secondary: The secondary did what they were asked to do for all but one play: don’t get beat deep. Fortunately the game was decided by then. Najee Reams (game high six tackles) is looking like a second coming of 2021 A&T Hall of Famer Curtis Burgins. Reams was everywhere making tackles or knocking the ball out of a receiver’s hands. But in order to reach that upper echelon in Blue Death history, he’ll have to come up with some turnovers. Reserve corner Miles Simon showed some athleticism making a one-on-one tackle in space against a receiver and broke up a deep ball. He has filled in admirably for injured starter DJ Crossen, who remained in concussion protocol.
Alabama coach Nick Saban has been credited with improving special teams play as a whole by being willing to use starters on special teams. It’s a trend that’s taken the college football world by storm, and of course, N.C. A&T is no exception. Starting linebacker Jacob Roberts took the football right off of NCCU punter Jose Velarde’s foot, and Jazir Staton recovered it in the end zone to put A&T up 20-3 and pretty much eliminated Central’s chances. Roberts also recovered an onside kick attempt. Michael Rivers put three of his four punts inside the 20, keeping the most dangerous return man in the MEAC, Brandon Codrington, at bay. Andrew Brown turned in a possible Big South Rookie of the Week performance with 13 points scored, including makes from 39, 25, and a season long 45 yards. Bhayshul Tuten looked like a promising kick returner with returns of 32 and 19 yards. This unit is becoming a weapon right before our eyes.
Overall, many questions were answered and I feel some Aggie fans’ fears have been subsided somewhat. The adjustment to the Big South will not be a cakewalk at all, but what the Aggies coaching staff trusts is their “doing chicken” philosophy. Run the ball, defend the run, and when let the opportunities for explosive plays arrive, execute them. This is not a perfect team by any means, but improvement for week to week is all a fan can ask for, and that has been a success at the corner of Lindsay and Sullivan so far.