N.C. A&T football is still seeking answers to find a cure for its offensive woes. For a while, the Aggies stood toe-to-toe with the Big South’s defending champion. Second half miscues proved to be too much to overcome, as Monmouth won going away, 35-16, ruining the Greatest Homecoming on Earth. This loss is a bit easier to explain than last week, although Saturday’s performance was much better, particularly from the defensive end. For the third straight game, the Aggies produced no points in the second half.
Quarterback – It has been learned that Jalen Fowler (18-of-29 for 215 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) has played the last two games with a fracture in his left (non-throwing) hand, which could offer some explanation of his accuracy issues as of late. Most of Fowler’s completions were among the short to medium distance, as the Hawks were content to play some soft zone coverage. Fowler was able to engineer two scoring drives midway through the first half, and his play fake and touchdown to a wide open Nick Dobson at the goal line was exciting to see for the sellout crowd. Once Fowler tries to go beyond the 15-20 yard range in distance, things tend to go a bit awry for him. His interception was an underthrown ball targeted at Korey Banks, who was about two yards beyond the defender. Fowler did pull together a great drive and got the team in the end zone on a 25 yard pass to Banks, but a questionable offensive pass interference penalty was called, killing the drive and a chance for a comeback. Coach Sam Washington insisted that Fowler will continue to play as long as he can with Kingsley Ifedi serving as the reserve option. Freshman Zach Yeager has one more game in which he can see action while maintaining his redshirt, so the best case scenario is for him not to play at all.
Running Back– Jah-Maine Martin might be back. He powered his way to 97 yards on 16 carries and scored his third touchdown, his first in a month long stretch, and drew the largest cheer from the home crowd. But what stood out was his aggressive style of running through the holes. He lowered his shoulder and ran through contact on several tackle attempts. It was also good to see Kashon Baker back as well (5 carries, 39 yards). Monmouth played some soft zone and that opened some running lanes. Hopefully the Aggies will see more of that in the second halves of the remaining games. The disappearing second half offense also included the running game.
Wide Receiver – Fowler has continued to spread the ball around to the wideouts. Korey Banks (3 catches, 55 yards) has been the most reliable target, but Taymon Cooke (5 catches, 53 yards) is an up-and-coming threat with speed. Ron Hunt, Jordan McDaniel, and Jamison Warren each caught two passes. The most frustrating thing here is that the Aggie lineup is loaded with receiving talent, including several redshirts, but yet the offense is at a standstill. Somehow, these guys need to get more opportunities down the field to loosen up the defense.
Offensive Line – The offensive line was much better than last week at Hampton. Once Monmouth built a two-score lead after halftime, the team was forced to get away from its game plan and throw the football. Although Fowler was sacked three times, that was more on his decision making and defensive coverage and not on the line. The positives came in the first half, when the Aggies ran the football successfully for their two scoring drives. There was more push from the line, particularly on the right side and up the middle. Predictability in play calling has been an issue all season long, and it shows in the way defenses attack the offensive line in the running game.
Defensive Line – N.C. A&T’s interior line did what they were asked to do. Several plays were made across the Monmouth line of scrimmage. Devin Harrell had two sacks, while Robert Porcher, Shomari Wallace and Karfa Kaba combined for 3.5 more. The line was able to get off the field a few times after adjusting in the second quarter, and forced the Hawks on their heels. Unfortunately the line wore down late, as the offense could not score. Two Aggie three-and-outs to open the second half took the momentum away, then Monmouth was able to score to take a 28-17 lead and put the game out of reach.
Linebackers – The final score does not indicate how spirited and how well the Aggie linebacking corps performed today. Monmouth was one dimensional the entire game, as the defense allowed just 77 yards rushing on 39 attempts. Jacob Roberts had three of the Aggies eight sacks, one which led to a safety. He lined up on both sides of the line and blitzed, which is exactly what the Aggie fans had been calling for. Joseph Stuckey (8 tackles) and Richie Kittles (team high 10 tackles) were all over the field.
Secondary – It’s becoming more and more difficult to watch the secondary each week. The Aggie front seven was able to get penetration on early downs, which created passing situations on 3rd downs all day. But Hawk QB Tony Muskett completed 8 of his 9 third down passes for 101 yards, with the lone incompletion being a drop. Even when the secondary tackled receivers in front of the first down marker, the Hawks had short fourth down runs that extended drives. Muskett also was able to take advantage of the Aggie coverage and scrambled up the middle for a 16-yard run on a 3rd-and-12 on the first scoring drive. Muskett finished 19-for-28 for 246 yards and two scores with no interceptions. Hawk receiver Lonnie Moore IV led the team with five receptions for 100 yards, with a 29-yard TD. Moore lined up against Aggie cornerback Miles Simon for most of the day.
As good as punter Michael Rivers is, even he can have a mistake. He did well enough to cover up a high snap from center on the first punt of the game, which resulted in a 19-yard loss. Monmouth turned the short field into a touchdown. The remainder of the day was steady for Rivers, with four punts for a 40 yard average. Kick returns were solid, with a 27-yard average on four returns. It’s clear that Bhayshul Tuten and Taymon Cooke are the future here, and I would not be surprised if either takes one to the house. We also need to look for a punt return threat in off-season recruiting as Korey Banks has largely been used to secure possessions. The hidden yardage battle was a draw, so the fumbled snap was huge in a game where the Aggies had to play close to perfect to win.
First of all, homecoming operations were successful, given COVID-19. Special thanks need to go to all the staff, security personnel and volunteers that made GHOE happen. Credit also needs to be given to the Aggie faithful, fans and students, who showed up, and showed out. As always, several players from multiple generations of Aggie football were in attendance. Also, MEAC and A&T Hall of Famer Chris McNeil, who gave an amazing pregame speech to the team a week after his guest appearance on the Blue Death Valley podcast. In fact, the clear momentum shift happened when the crowd noise affected the Hawk offense at its own goal line, and the bad snap led to the safety. N.C. A&T scored on the ensuing drive and gave its fans some hope, and some pride. The players showed fight and that is something to build on for the remainder of the season. There is still more work to be done, however, as the journey through an evolving Big South Conference continues. For example, in week eight, having 12 penalties for 98 yards is inexcusable, especially when the penalty numbers had decreased in the previous four games. Three of the penalties allowed drives to extend with first downs. The Aggies have the talent to keep up with the top team of the league, but the ability to finish drives and games without mistakes separates the champions from the rest.