If there was any question as to whether North Carolina A&T belonged in the conversation about the Top 10 FCS football programs in the country, all doubt was laid to rest last Sunday afternoon down in Greenville, NC.
The Aggies, a 14-point underdog going in their encounter with East Carolina, proved they were more than up to the challenge by knocking off their much larger in-state FBS rival in a 28-23 thriller that went down to the wire. A&T twice overcame fourth quarter deficits on the arm and legs of backup quarterback Kylil Carter and the Aggie secondary intercepted a desperation final play Hail Mary to secure the win.
Carter, who stepped in for an ailing Lamar Raynard (cramps), threw two touchdown passes, the first one a 4-yarder to Zach Leslie on a brilliant one handed catch on a fade route. The second was the game winner to Elijah Bell, who took a short pass in the flat, broke a tackle, and ran it in from 17 yards out with just over six minutes remaining in the contest.
This marks the third straight year that A&T has knocked off an FBS opponent and the Aggies can now claim in-state road wins over App State, Charlotte, and ECU, all North Carolina FBS programs.
Elsewhere, MEAC teams weren’t nearly as impressive in their non-conference debuts. N.C. Central fell flat in their 40-24 loss to Prairie View in the MEAC/SWAC Challenge down in Atlanta.
Howard put up a great battle before coming up just one possession short in their FBS upset bid falling to Ohio 38-32. Georgia Southern rolled up 319 yards rushing and crushed S.C. State 37-6. Towson State will continue to hold the key to the City of Baltimore as they routed Morgan State 36-10 on the Bears home field.
Delaware State showed that it still has a long road ahead of them as they were dismantled 48-10 by Buffalo. Tennessee State opened their season at home in Nashville and gashed Bethune Cookman for 525 yards of total offense enroute to 34-3 bludgeoning of the Wildcats.
All the news wasn’t bad as both Norfolk State and FAMU held up their end by taking care of business against a pair of Division II opponents. The NSU Spartans avenged last year’s humiliating defeat to Virginia State by beating up the Trojans with a big 17-point fourth quarter in their 34-13 win. FAMU had no problems in their opening stopping outmanned Fort Valley State 41-7 down in Tallahassee.
Week 2 action will again will be a trial by non-conference fire. Bethune Cookman (0-1) will be looking to bounce back in a big way at home as they face Virginia University of Lynchburg (0-0). Howard (0-1) will try their hand once more against FBS competition as they travel to Kent State (0-1), a team that they narrowly lost to a year ago.
NCCU should get their first win on the young season as they will entertain St. Augustine’s. Morgan State (0-1) will be winging it to the state of Ohio to take on always tough Akron. Delaware State (0-1) will visit St. Francis (PA) (0-1) in a regional FCS battle.
No one envies Savannah State (0-1) this week as they must face a #22 Miami (0-1) team that was embarrassed last weekend by LSU. Things won’t be much better just up the road for South Carolina State (0-1) as they go to #19 UCF (1-0).
Norfolk State (1-0) will have a golden opportunity to shock the world and make a giant statement as they get to entertain #2 ranked FCS kingpin James Madison (0-1) in Dick Price Stadium.
#5 North Carolina A&T (2-0), fresh off it’s Sunday upset of East Carolina, will host Big South member Gardner-Webb (1-0) in their home opener at BB&T (Aggie) Stadium Saturday night on the A&T campus here in Greensboro.
Now that it has been proven on the field to even the most skeptical of critics, N.C. A&T is a every bit deserving of the adulation and respect due a top FCS football program. You simply don’t see very many FCS programs schedule a game right out of the gate against a perennial Top 5 power opponent on the road then immediately follow that up by playing a well established FBS program just a week later.
That kind of scheduling leads one to believe that Athletic Director Earl Hilton knew a lot more about this A&T program’s capabilities than he ever let on and most certainly had complete confidence in Sam Washington to orchestrate it all.
The wins over Jacksonville State and East Carolina is all the affirmation that A&T is not only the premier football program among HBCUs but one of the best in all of the FCS. Even though the Aggies didn’t play their best in either contest, they showed a competitor’s heart and yeoman’s effort to win both in dramatic fashion. That and the fact this team just doesn’t allow itself to get rattled and self doubt when faced with adversity. They just raise their level of intensity and they go out and make plays.
Commitment is a term that gets tossed around a lot but you can tell that A&T is making that commitment with investments made over the last half decade and with the soon to be $20 million dollar athletic complex and vast stadium upgrades to be completed over the next two years, A&T seems intent on making their recent move into this top tier FCS neighborhood into a much more permanent full-time residence.
Now that the Aggies have reached an all new plateau, the really hard work begins this week. These first two games were easy motivation for this team since A&T was the decided underdog in both games going in. It becomes much harder from here on out because with that every team the Aggies face from this point forward will have switched roles with them.
Every opponent the Aggies will face is going to absolutely throw the kitchen sink at them at every week. It has always been an accepted fact that teams always seem to get up for A&T but now there’s the whole new dynamic of being national power. The motivation for the Aggies now must evolve from the knocking off the bullies to gain respect on the block to instead showing they are true masters the craft. Playing just well enough to win won’t get it done over the next ten games. The only way for A&T to get back to Atlanta will be by doing exactly what they did last year – showing that clear improvement and getting better in every facet of the game each and every week.
Like I said before, the really hard work begins now.
Gardner-Webb comes to Greensboro this Saturday night looking to make amends for last year’s 45-3 drubbing in Boiling Springs by the Aggies of N.C. A&T. The Running Bulldogs got off to an auspicious start at home last weekend with their 52-10 romp over D-II Limestone College (SC).
Coach Carroll McCray will bring in a Bulldog team that is long on both size and experience along the offensive front and a trio of solid running backs. Will Millikan (6-4, 290, Sr.), Charlie Eudy (6-2, 304, Sr.), Brandon Briggs (6-3, 307, Jr.), Jack Nichols (6-3, 315) and Brandon Leahey (6-3, 297, Jr.) provide a big wedge for this primarily ground oriented offense.
The Bulldogs are breaking in a new quarterback this season with red shirt freshman Jordan Smith (6-1, 211) . Jordan was 14-24 for 150 yards with one interception and ran for 32 yards and a TD in his first collegiate start last week. The Bulldogs will be run heavy with Jayin Cagle (6-0, 202, Jr.) leading the charge. Cagle ran for 117 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries against Limestone. He got plenty of relief help from A. J. Moses (6-0, 229, So.) and Elijah Perry (5-8,175, Sr.).
The main receiving threats are seniors Jonathan Blackman (6-1, 185) and Brody 1rollins (5-11, 175). The Bulldogs are hoping for big things out of true freshman Izaiah Gathers (6-4, 216). The Bulldogs have a dangerous punt returner in Kyle Horton (5-11,178, Sr.)
As experienced as the offensive front is the defensive front is very young with red shirt freshmen across the 3-4 alignment. Kendall Bailey (6-4, 255) and John Singleton (6-5, 240) are a couple of rangy ends and Janathian Turner (6-3, 300) will be the nose guard.
The real playmaker on defense is a very active inside linebacker. Shai Thomas (6-2, 248, So.) was selected the Big South’s Defensive Player of the Week after registering six tackles, 2 sacks, a fumble recovery and a interception return, both for touchdowns. The secondary got a big preseason boost with Indiana transfer corner back Elijah Rodgers (6-1,173) who will team with his brother Kobe Rodgers (6-1,183) on the other corner.
A few Gardner-Webb players had begun a tiny bit of Twitter trash talk earlier in the week but some reason it abruptly stopped by Tuesday. Maybe some of their coaching staff reminded them of all the bulletin board material that several ECU players tweeted out leading into last Sunday’s game. That didn’t work out so well for them did it.
Forget about the Gardner Webb of last year. The Bulldogs will come into this game much better prepared than they were last time they faced A&T. The Aggies simply overwhelmed the Bulldogs down in Boiling Springs because (1) A&T was easily the superior team (2) G-W had no real clue just how good A&T really was.
G-W has had a year to think about this game so they will likely be much more aggressive. They know better what to expect this time around. They will have new personnel, new play calls, some tendencies will have changed as well as their intensity level going in. In other words, they will be ready to play.
For A&T, its the first home game of season, returning from its most triumphal conquests to date. Coming in off a short week preparation shouldn’t have much of an effect and playing in front of what should be a large and appreciative home crowd with many wanting to see the nation’s hottest team in the flesh for the first time this year.
The three big keys for A&T in this game are the usual ones that Sam Washington talks about every week – stop the run, win the kicking game, and take care of the football. But the Aggies will need to find their offensive rhythm much earlier than they have in these first two games. A&T began to find that rhythm near the end of the first half against ECU and definitely in that key fourth quarter as the young offensive line showed signs of that it is beginning to jell as a unit.
Look for the Aggies to be pumped back in front of the Aggie faithful wanting to show the homefolk that all this sudden national notoriety is well founded and hasn’t gone to their heads. I don’t think that will be a problem with this group. They are a pretty well grounded bunch and understand what all this attention means for not only just for A&T but in their new role as the standard bearer for all of HBCU football.
N. C. A&T – 38
G-Webb – 10