The opening week of college football is a wrap and there were more than a few surprises and a couple of real head scratchers along the way. In Big South action four of the conferences teams hit the road with no success and two stayed at home to notch their first wins of the year while a third never made it out of the gate.
Robert Morris was supposed to journey up to Dayton, OH to take on the Flyers this past Saturday but never made the trip out of Pittsburgh when it was discovered last Wednesday there had been a Covid-19 outbreak within the program and all football activities were immediately shut down until this week. The game will not be rescheduled. At the time of this printing, there is no word yet on RMU’s status in regards to next week’s game at Central Michigan.
Up and coming FBS Liberty sped up the tempo considerably and had no problem in dismantling Campbell 48-7 after leading 20-7 in a relatively competitive slow moving first half.
The BSC’s ranked teams took it on the chin as #12 and two time defending Big South Champion Monmouth turned the ball over 5 times in route to a 50-15 thrashing at the hands of FBS and Conference USA rep Middle Tennessee. Those turnovers resulted in 28 unanswered points completely breaking open a tight contest midway through the third quarter.
#24 North Carolina A&T opted out of play in 2020 and missed 640 plus days of competition because of the pandemic. The long layoff and all rust that came with it was quite evident as the Aggies dug themselves a big 17-point third quarter hole, put together a big rally late but still fell short in a 29-18 loss to Furman.
FBS Georgia Southern thought they were going to coast against a young Gardner-Webb team but the pesky Bulldogs would not go away. GWU took the Eagles to the very brink in the closing minutes before coming up just short on their final drive in a 30-25 nail biter.
Hampton nixed their defense and got into a back and forth shootout for a good little while with CIAA Virginia Union before two late fourth quarter scores on two big plays put the game on ice as the Pirates won 42-28 to open their season. The Pirates rolled up monstrous 611 yards in total offense and dominated the time of possession with 29 more plays. Union finished with 395 yards in a losing effort.
#19 Kennesaw State was missing of their 20 players last Thursday night and had a hard time corralling an overmatched but very resilient Rhienhardt (NAIA) 35-25 team in their home opener.
This week’s games will get a lot tougher for everyone in the conference during “FBS” week. North Carolina A&T (0-1) will kick things first by taking the hour long ride up I-40 to take on Duke (ACC, 0-1) in Durham on Friday at 8 p.m. (ACC Network).
Kennesaw State (1-0) will travel cross town Atlanta to match wits with Georgia Tech (ACC, 1-0) at noon on Saturday (ACC Network). Gardner-Webb (0-1) will hope to catch Charlotte (CUSA, 1-0) napping a bit after their big upset over Duke. Game time is set for 6 p.m. on ESPN3.
Robert Morris is scheduled to head up to Central Michigan (MAC, 0-1) on ESPN3 at 3 p.m. pending their Covid status. Hampton (1-0) will cross over into Norfolk (1-0) to face Old Dominion (CUSA, 0-1) at 7 p.m. on ESPN3.
In FCS match-ups only, Monmouth (0-1) will be looking to rebound against Fordham (Ivy, 0-1)) at 6 p.m. on ESPN+. There’s another cross town rumble on the weekend schedule as The Citadel (SoCon, 0-1) tangles with Charleston Southern (0-0) at 2 p.m. (ESPN+, Nexstar).
Campbell (0-1) will entertain Elon (CAA, 0-1) in their home opener in Buies Creek at 6 p.m. (ESPN+) while Chattanooga (SoCon, 0-1) makes the long trip down to Northern Alabama (0-1) for a 7 p.m. kickoff on ESPN+.
Duke is probably still wondering exactly how they lost to Charlotte last week 31-28 despite an All-America type performance by their stud running back Mataeo Durant. The 6-1, 210 pound Durant ran through, over, and around the 49ers for a school record 255 yards and 3 TDs.
It was no mystery to Duke Head Coach Dave Cutcliffe in his post game comments.
“Let me sum it up first. We turned it over, they didn’t, that’s an age-old story. And that’s literally the way this game came down. They did a better job of taking advantage of their opportunities and explosive plays. We didn’t. So, you don’t have to look much beyond that. But did we tackle well enough? Did we cover well enough on defense? No. Did we play situational offense as well as we could have played it? I didn’t think so.”
“But the biggest difference is when you got people third-and-10 or second-and-15 or first-and-15, you got to get stops. And if we can’t get off the field and a team can take it 93 yards and the team can take it 75 yards, it’s really very difficult to try to play good defense. I mean you watch any defensive team, you give up that second first down on the drive, it’s hard to get off the field and we did that way too much tonight.”
The Blue Devils will be looking to correct those errors this Friday night against an N.C. A&T. Besides Durant, a preseason All-ACC pick, Duke will depend on first year starting quarterback Gunner Holmberg (6-3, 205, Gr.). Holmberg did a creditable job in his first ever start going 20-29 for 228 yards and a one TD.
Junior wide out Jalon Calhoun (5-11, 190) had a huge game against the Aggies two years ago while the duo of Jake Bobo (6-5, 215, Sr.) and Eli Pancol (6-3, 205, Jr.) can be dynamite on the deep route.
Duke is big and experienced up front led by senior Jack Wohlabaugh (6-4, 305), John Gollete (6-7, 295, R-So.), Graham Barton (6-6, 315, So.), Maurice McIntyre (6-2, 330. Jr.), and Jacob Monk (6-3, 310, Jr.)
Defensively the Blue Devils were burned badly by Charlotte’s mobile backup quarterback Chris Reynolds for 324 yards and three TDS on 19-30 passing.
Much of that had to do with Duke only getting pressure on Reynolds just once on the night.
The pressure will probably be dialed up considerably this week off the edge by ends Ben Frye (6-3, 255, Gr.) and Mike Reese (6-4,250). The rush defense was solid enough with tackles Dewayne Carter (6-3, 300)and Gary Smith (6-2, 320). Linebackers Shaka Heyward (6-4, 220) and Sayhid Stevens (6-3,225) are both long and quick.
The secondary led by upperclassmen Nate Thompson (6-3, 200, Jr.) and Jalen Alexander (5-11,160, Jr.) will need to be on their toes again this week against A&T’s fast and taller wide receivers.
After listening to Dave Cutcliffe explain the reasons for last week’s loss to FBS upstart Charlotte, it didn’t sound a whole lot different in many respects from many of the sentiments expressed by A&T’s Sam Washington in his Monday press conference.
The Aggies playing without about half its expected starting lineup on defense, including the entire starting front four were forced to play most all of their second and third team guys against a veteran Furman offense.
If you throw in the loss of corner DJ Crossen early in the game due to a concussion, and the disqualification of two starting linebackers in Alex Fumbah and Jacob Roberts on two highly suspect targeting calls in which no flag was thrown on the field, it was no small wonder the defense had problems getting off the field consistently.
Still those younger inexperienced Aggies that were way down the deep chart settled down as the game went on and gave A&T two golden opportunities in the fourth quarter, coming up with an fumble and a interception deep in Furman Territory, which the offense failed to convert on both.
The offensive breakdowns following those takeaways, coupled with two very uncharacteristic flubs by the holder in the kicking game in the fourth quarter, were the key elements leading to last week’s road loss.
Just when A&T appeared to have gained all the momentum late in the game after cutting a 20-point third quarter deficit in half in just a matter of minutes, the inability to generate any semblance of a running game and committing unforced drive killing penalties in the red zone doomed any final comeback effort.
The defense will get almost all of their missing pieces back this week with the exception of DJ Crossen who is now in concussion protocol for the foreseeable future and Jacob Roberts (must sit out the first half) so there should be immediate and substantial improvement in both the run and the pass defense this week despite playing against a more talented and way deeper Duke team.
I’m not nearly as enthusiastic about the offense. There has to be major improvement shown along the offensive line in creating a push to get the running game started. Furman dominated the line scrimmage against the run game and they weren’t shy about it in doing so.
As the game moved along in the second half, A&T’s offense seemed far more relaxed and confident by throwing the football on early downs versus the running it which is something that we would never see anytime soon for a program that prides itself on it’s reputation run first philosophy.
Might this precipitate a change in approach going forward? Perhaps. The one consistent positive thing for sure that showed through in this game was the work of the wide receivers in finding the open spaces in Furman’s zone making some big plays in process. A&T’s wide outs are legit.
And while move to more passing in those situations really didn’t give A&T that much more room to run, it did force the Furman defense out of stacking the box and to play more honestly allowing the Aggies to move the ball down the field quickly on their three sustained scoring drives.
Now going into this week and being totally realistic, there is a ton of work that needs to be done between now and the time the Aggies begin conference play in about three weeks. There’s good news and bad news from last Saturday.
The bad news is that what many had feared would happen because of the 2-year layoff away from competitive football came to fruition . A&T was out of sync and many times showed confusion on both sides of the ball, obviously unaccustomed to full game speed, and shooting ourselves in the foot with little things like coaches getting the play called and into the game before the play clock ran out and inconsistency in making the proper choices when they did.
The good news? All of things mentioned are very fixable in every way. Even though A&T played probably the worst half of football in maybe 5 years, the Aggies were only down 10-3 at halftime. Still playing a roller coaster second half, A&T still had a chance to still win it late into the fourth quarter. We’ve discovered that this team has a whole lot of fight in them and that one loss is not going to define who or what they are.
A&T has plenty of talent from top to bottom on its roster. They certainly have the potential to win the Big South and advance beyond the first round of the playoffs. No question about it. But before anything even remotely close to that can begin to take shape a lot of things have got to be cleaned up in these hot late summer days of September in order for A&T to be a real factor in those cool days to come of October and November.
However, what about the right now? Right now A&T has get itself ready for the long haul of a new season in a new league but more importantly getting back into old M.O. of not beating themselves, re-establishing its run game, keeping a reliable kick game on hand and winning the battle along the line of scrimmage.
I know the opponent this week is Duke and its a money game against an in-state FBS opponent and all the other stuff that goes with that. And like any other devoted A&T supporter I sure would like us to be that first HBCU to grab that historic upset win over a Power 5 program in the modern era.
No way to hide the fact that this is going to be tall order and now especially so with the Blue Devils coming off an upset loss. Look for Duke to most likely win this game just based on sheer numbers and size but the Aggies, assuming that all of A&T’s key missing personnel return to action, to play significantly better than they did a week ago and to make things far more interesting than they did in 2019.
Duke – 40
N.C. A&T – 24