(Greensboro, NC) – N.C. A&T may be back to “doing chicken” once again. In referencing the Rod Broadway era, the Aggies used the running of Bhayshul Tuten, timely passes from Jalen Fowler and five turnovers created by the defense to take a 24-13 victory over Bryant University in front of a sparse crowd Saturday at Truist Stadium. The Aggie defense held the Bulldogs (1-4, 0-1 Big South) to 38 yards rushing, and looked confident while taking a 2-3, 1-0 record into the bye week.
– Fowler (11-for-17, 114 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) and Zach Yeager (3-for-5, 16 yards) both played, but Fowler was much more effective. Fowler started the first quarter and led the Aggies to two touchdowns capped off by Tuten runs. He made good decisions off the RPO and made solid throws to open receivers. Yeager came for two series in the second quarter and couldn’t overcome penalties on each of the series. After a nearly non-existent 3rd quarter for the offense, Fowler made just three pass attempts in the 4th, but two of them were the biggest of the game. He lofted a perfect ball to the outside shoulder to Sterling Berkhalter in the left corner of the end zone for the insurance touchdown, and the final points of the contest. Then he helped seal the game by completing a critical third and short pass to Ger-Cari Caldwell for six yards on a 3rd and five on the final drive. Fowler has settled in finally and may be the starter for the rest of the way. If he continues this complimentary play with the running game, N.C. A&T will be a formidable opponent for any Big South foe.
– Tuten (27 carries for 114 yards, 2 TDs, 3 catches for 32 yards) continues to be the best running back in all of FCS football. He simply does what Aggie running backs do, find the hole, accelerate through it and then take on the opposing secondary in space, unless he reaches the end zone first. The amount of production is incredible considering that he is the focal point of all the opposing defenses so far. Fowler doesn’t mind using the running backs as outlets for the short passing game. Bryant was content to bring their linebackers forward against the run and still could not stop Tuten. Wesley Graves (6 rushes-25 yards) did not have the day he had last week, but broke through for a 25-yard run on the game ending drive. This two-back attack is going to be a great combination for years to come. We saw what Charlie Dixon do when he gets some opportunities, but we can be patient. There is a reason why the rotation is what it is, and to have all three of them is a luxury. This brings memories of the Bill Hayes era when he would rotate three backs and eventually, all went to the NFL. In addition to the three back monster, we have to salute Chris Barnette for seeing Romello Kimbrough uncovered and getting him involved in the passing game. Kimbrough caught a pass out in the flat and rumbled 15 yards, punctuating it with a hurdle over the defender. Kimbrough also caught a touchdown pass against Duke as well.
Speaking of having a talented group, it seems like a different receiver shows up to make plays when opportunities came. This time it was Burkhalter’s (5 catches, 63 yards, 1 TD) turn. Berkhalter not only caught the ball at the high point, he sealed the defender as he came down for the 25-yard score from Fowler that put the Aggies up 24-13. It is going to be wonderful as this group continues to develop every week.
The offensive line was dominant early and late in the contest. The second (10 plays, 64 yards) and third drives (6 plays, 51 yards) of the game resulted in touchdowns, with the majority of the plays being runs off tackle and over the middle by Tuten. The line got to flex its muscle on the final drive, which consumed the last 8:13 of the contest. The 13-play, 81-yard drive featured 11 runs and two short passes, with no negative plays. In between those drives, the line got a bit out of rhythm and committed a few penalties. Even though this happens, we like the commitment to the running game. More impressively, this line is doing this without the services of preseason All-Big South guard Lawrence Lagrone. Inserting Sophomore Korian Sharpe at left guard, moving Cesar Minarro to center and Dacquari Wilson to right guard has worked incredibly so far. Tuten hardly goes down on first contact, but the holes have been large enough to drive golf carts through. Meanwhile, the line allowed has allowed just eight sacks in 133 pass attempts.
The return of Jermaine McDaniel was huge for this game. McDaniel (1 tackle for a 3-yard loss, 1 breakup) figured directly in the game-changing play when the Aggies needed it most. With the Aggie offense going through a lull, McDaniel hit Bulldog QB Zevi Eckhaus which forced the ball to go up in the air and land in the arms of Janorris Robertson for an interception, which led to the game clinching touchdown. McDaniel, Robertson, Shomari Wallace, Karfa Kaba and Henry Daniel looked dominant at times and consistently put offensive linemen back in Eckhaus’s face. The best stop of the game happened when Bryant had a 1st and goal at the Aggies 2-yard line trailing 14-10 in midway through the third quarter. There was no room to run at all as Karon Prunty, Tywayne Williams and Avarion Cole all made stops in the defensive backfield. Bryant had to settle for a field goal and would never score again.
As usual, Jacob Roberts (6 tackles, 1 QB hurry) and Tyquan King (5 tackles, 1 for loss, and 1 breakup) led the charge against the Bulldog running game, which, except for a 15-yard Ishod Byarm run, went absolutely nowhere. Without that run, the Bulldogs ran 14 times for a net 23 yards. I know that fans would love to see these guys in on the quarterback a lot more. But the scheme is designed to allow yardage between the 20-yard lines in lieu of allowing the big play behind the safeties. On third down, this unit played the “sticks” much better and as a result, the Bulldogs converted just 3-of-11. It was great seeing the unit get off the field without having to send everyone.
After taking his lumps last week going against potential pro Shaq Davis, Prunty made two interceptions being at the right place at the right time. He got his first by winning a jump ball at the end of the first half that would have made him a candidate for Jump Ball U. He added one of three fourth quarter picks. Overall, Karon Prunty showed his range and his length defending and is a very valuable asset when the Aggies lock down with press coverage in the red zone. He received his first Big South Defensive Player of the Week honor for his efforts. The secondary also got a boost with the return of Amir McNeill from injury. Backup rover David Laney also grabbed a pick to end another red zone possession. But the most active player on the field was starting rover Avarion Cole (team high eight solo tackles, one for loss), who is a long way from his performance from week one. Safety Tywayne Williams (three tackles) is also improving weekly. As mentioned early the defensive backfield figured big in a goal line stand that forced a field goal at a critical juncture in third quarter, arguably the best three plays of the season.
Another week, another long kickoff return allowed by the special teams unit. This has gone from a cause for concern to a complete red flag. Anthony Frederick took the opening second half kickoff for 56 yards and quickly the Bulldogs were in the end zone. In addition to the long kick return, Andrew Brown had a field goal attempt blocked that led to a long return as well. Another issue has been Brown’s kickoffs, as he has been averaging short of 60 yards, leading to a 23.2-yard opponent return average. Some of these short kickoffs have allowed the coverage to arrive early but they also allow the returner to get a running start and sprint into the alley at top speed. Only the speed of Taymon Cook, Amonte Jones and Aaron Harris have prevented touchdowns. The punt coverage units (8.9 yards per return) have done well, mainly due to the high punts of Caleb Brickhouse (39.5 yards per punt). Overall, the unit has performed among the best in the Big South and their ceiling has not been met yet. Jones 1 KOR for 24 yards) and Cook (3 for 64 yards) need just one hole and one key block at midfield to go the distance. It’s only a matter of time. Roberts once again made an impact on special teams, recovering a muffed punt that led to a field goal.
As the Aggies prepare to go deep into the conference season after this week’s bye, the team looks like it’s a throwback to the William “Bill” Hayes era. Tuten ranks among the top 10 in FCS in rushing yards per game. Meanwhile the defense has shown signs of improving every week. And now, they are getting turnovers. The four interceptions eclipsed the season total going into the game. The combination of a big play passing game, a powerful running game that eats up clock, and a defense that causes turnovers is a recipe for championship football. It’s a different look from what the fan base has been used to seeing, but it has a long proven track record of winning. It is now time for a critical three week stretch of practice and preparation (weather permitting). N.C. A&T has a bye week and will play Division II Edward Waters, a late addition to the schedule this summer. This is an optimal time to have the quarterbacks get healthy and take as many reps as possible, especially Zach Yeager and Austin Hooker, who are now the backup and third string, presumably. Conventional wisdom states that playing multiple quarterbacks is a sign of not having any, but this is an unconventional team that played an unconventionally tough schedule and the dividends are paying off.