Durham, NC – N.C. A&T coach Sam Washington noted in the Tuesday press conference this week that his team gave a great effort with coachable moments at #1 ranked North Dakota State. He also stated the Duke Blue Devils are much more improved than in the two previous encounters. The hosts proved his words to be correct, as the Blue Devils scored 21 points in just 12 plays en route to a 49-20 victory over N.C. A&T at the sold out Wallace Wade stadium.
The Aggies put together their best offensive performance of the season, but were no match for the big-play offense of Duke. Jaylin Stinson led off the game with a 65-yard kickoff return and on the ensuing play, Riley Leonard connected with Nicky Dalmolin for a 38-yard TD. Following a three-and out, Leonard threw a four-yard TD toss to Jordan Moore to cap off a 10 play, 52-yard drive. On the ensuing drive, Aeneas Peebles stripped Jalen Fowler and the ball was scooped by Dewayne Carter, who rumbled 35 yards for the score, which pushed the Blue Devils to a 21-0 lead.
Once the Aggies finally settled down, they were able to move the football and eventually score points behind the quarterback platoon of Fowler and freshman Eli Brickhandler, who saw his first action and threw his first career touchdown pass late in the fourth quarter. Bhayshul Tuten led the Aggies with 133 yards on 10 carries for a career best 10.2 yard average per rush.
The competition for the Aggies #1 signal caller position may be a two horse race after tonight. Brickhandler (5 for 8 passing, 48 yards, TD) was as good as advertised when he came into the contest. He provided some confidence, tempo, and a bit of swagger to the field. He even bounced up from a hard hit on his first play, a third down conversion run. Late in the fourth quarter with the both teams playing reserves, Brickhandler capped off a long drive with his first collegiate TD pass. It seems that with Brickhandler and Zach Yeager, the pace of the offense increases and looks more formidable. The two also add a threat of mobility, a trait Fowler lacks, especially against quality edge rushers on the opposing defensive line. It is unfortunate that Fowler (8-14, 89 yards) has been a victim of his own willingness to protect the football in the passing game, as he tends to hold the ball much longer than he should. The results continue to be disastrous. We are now up to five consecutive Fowler lost fumbles that have directly led to opponent touchdowns, with two of them returned for scores in the last two weeks. Going back to last season’s opener at Furman, opponents have scored 42 points off of Fowler’s lost fumbles alone. Neither Brickhandler nor Fowler received assistance from the receivers, who dropped at least four passes. Yeager is expected to return next week, as his injury (shoulder) has been diagnosed as minor.
Tuten is the one constant in the Aggie offense. His speed, shiftiness and quickness are reminiscent of other smaller open field running backs in Aggie history, such as Tarik Cohen, Maurice Hicks, Temell Purkett (before he was converted into a defensive back), and Milton Shaw. But now, we can see that there is a three-headed monster in the backfield. Wesley (formerly known as Fredderick) Graves (8 carries, 43 yards, 2 catches for 33 yards) finally got a chance to show off his talent in this contest. He has the ability to run over or through would be tacklers. Charlie Dixon (2 carries for 20 yards) scored his first career touchdown in the fourth quarter and looked imposing as well. I believe that we will need all of our backs next week, as well as during the conference season. Blocking fullback Romello Kimbrough broke into the scorebook with his first TD reception for N.C. A&T off a perfect play fake from Brickhandler. Kimbrough had an outstanding night creating holes for the three Aggie tailbacks. Many of his blocks were made on the second level to extend Tuten’s runs into the double digits.
So many big play opportunities went by the boards tonight due to dropped passes. We counted at least two apiece from Jamison Warren and Ger-Cari Cardwell. Warren’s was the most unfortunate, as he dropped a touchdown pass that hit both hands as he dove in the end zone. He also dropped a deep crossing route as well. Cardwell had the biggest play of the game, a 36-yard grab on the sideline, but had two others pass attempts hit his hands. The Aggies also have to get better production from inside the red zone as well. No “jump ball” attempts were made tonight, particularly early in the contest. While the Aggie fans lamented the off target throws from Yeager against NCCU and Fowler against NDSU, accuracy was not the problem tonight from either quarterback. With Zack Leslie (3 catches for 43 yards) and Cardwell on the outside, and Warren and Elijah Bowick lined up in either slot position, the offense has the tools to be successful. Once the established permanent starter gets starter’s reps in practice, better results are to be expected.
N.C. A&T found room wherever they decided to run to the right side all night, due to the outstanding job by RT Tariq Stewart and TE Nick Dobson. Tuten exploded for the longest run of the season, a 55-yarder to the right side, off the blocks of RG Lawrence Lagrone and C Dacquari Wilson, as several starters played late into the fourth quarter to produce a pair of touchdown drives. Sophomore reserve OG Korian Sharpe and redshirt junior OT Tim Williams got some reps in the second half as well and combined for a huge hole on Dixon’s touchdown. Jason Ivey, a redshirt sophomore OT, also got in on the act and provide the key block for Kimbrough’s TD catch. This unit got a chance to use some of its depth, which will pay dividends in the future. But the game did have some rough moments. The attempts to run the run-pass option plays with Fowler were nothing short of awful. Cesar Minarro got blown up on the RPO by Peebles, which led to the fumble return. Later Peebles blew up another RPO and Brandon Johnson caused the second Fowler fumble. Eventually the Aggies found success in a traditional I formation with Kimbrough serving as the blocking back for Tuten. We should see that more often, particularly in the red zone.
The nightmare from last week continued. Once again, the opening kickoff was returned for a huge play. While the return was well blocked, there were poor tackling angles at the point of attack. Stinson was untouched until Andrew Brown forced him out of bounds, saving the touchdown that occurred one play later. After that, Brown was told to kickoff very high and short, forcing a pair of fair catches and a near kick recovery by the Aggies when the ball landed between the return and the up lineman. Caleb Brickhouse averaged a solid 44 yards on his three punts with two fair catches. Although we’re waiting to see another 50-plus yarder, the most important thing is that he is limiting returns. There was an interesting fake punt attempt on 4th and 9 near midfield, but Duke was ready for it and Brickhouse was caught in his own backfield. Brown continued his perfect form on field goals, with makes from 21 and 41 yards. He is now 5-for-5 on kicks so far and has half of the team’s 36 points this season.
Riley Leonard had plenty of time against the front four of the Aggie defense and connected on his first 11 passes before throwing a pick. Even when the Aggies brought pressure, Leonard found the open man in the Aggies zone beyond the first down sticks. He also added two rushing touchdowns, including one of 56 yards, off the read option when Janorris Robinson and Jazir Staton got caught up field and no one covered the backside. In run defense, the Aggies seemed surprised by Duke’s willingness to run the football. The Blue Devils ran for 222 yards on 35 carries (6.3 yards per carry), and most were zone reads. True freshman Caleb Jones got the Aggies’ lone sack of the contest. S.C. State’s Kendrell Flowers runs in a similar offense and is coming off a 153-yard effort two weeks ago against Bethune-Cookman. He rushed for 161 yards in last season’s contest before being pulled in the second half.
Teams have taken advantage of the Aggie blitzes when they throw underneath the coverage. Duke was able to run the football much better than before which is an alarming sign. Tyquan King (team leading 13 tackles with 4 solos) is the unquestioned top defensive performer of the team. Jacob Roberts and Joseph Stuckey have to improve in pass coverage if the Aggies want to have any success against the rest of the schedule. They will definitely be tested next week against SC State.
The defensive backfield didn’t figure much into the contest, but a pair of plays against them turned to be huge. Karon Prunty (3 tackles) got caught looking in the backfield on a blitz and was beaten on an out-and-up by Sahmir Hagins on a 41-yard reception that set up Leonard’s first TD run. Avarion Cole (4 tackles) got his second start at the rover position and grabbed an interception in the red zone to prevent a Duke score. But he later gave the play back by missing a critical tackle on Leonard’s 56-yard TD run. The first major test of the season comes next week as Celebration Bowl MVP Shaq Davis comes to town. Prunty will likely draw the high profile assignment. Bulldog QB Corey Fields is not the most accurate of passers in HBCU football, but when he completes passes, big plays happen. He is not afraid to take shots down the field, and did so in last year’s matchup. Davis beat the Aggie secondary for five receptions and 96 yards, including a 57-yarder.
Last week, I mentioned that N.C. A&T lacked an identity on offense. I feel that is no longer true. The Aggies want to run the football, then mix some up-tempo passing to throw defenses off balances. The talent is there to do both things well.
In experimenting with the three quarterbacks, Sam Washington does not have much of a decision to make. Yeager should be given one more opportunity to win the job outright with Brickhandler as a reserve. If he stumbles, go with Brickhandler. Defensively, next week’s opponent, S.C. State, does not have a great offense when the Bulldogs are reduced to one dimension. N.C. A&T knocked Corey Fields from the game last season and coach Buddy Pough curiously removed several starters after the word came down that the Bulldogs had clinched the MEAC championship during the third quarter with Norfolk State’s loss to Delaware State. Kendrick Flowers is really good and will be ready to roll. In addition, the Bulldog coaching staff had a rare early season bye week to prepare for the Aggies.
I do not believe that offensive coordinator Chris Barnette has emptied the playbook this season. Expect a new wrinkle in the offense next week, especially if Brickhandler is in the game, which could come down to an individual play like Devin Harrell’s interception return in the fourth quarter last year. Special teams, notably the return game, has got to improve. Washington has won all of his matchups against Pough and in order to win this one, the Aggies must put everything together.