Aggies to face Norfolk State SpartansBy Semaj Marsh, Peacemaker Sports / November 2, 2018
Prior to this season, A&T head coach Sam Washington admitted that even though his program has enjoyed two memorable Celebration Bowl victories in the last three years, his ultimate goal was to one day compete for a FCS National Championship.
Now, due to a surprising turn of events this year, that scenario may indeed be possible.
The Aggies (6-2 overall, 3-1 MEAC) currently find themselves in second place in the conference after a 22-21 loss to first place Florida A&M on October 13. Yet, thanks to a pair of high profile wins against Jacksonville State and East Carolina to start of the season, A&T is still ranked 17th in the national polls.
If the Aggies can run the table the rest of the way and continue to climb in the polls, it’s conceivable that they could earn an at-large playoff bid in the 24-team field for only the second time in school history.
For that to happen, A&T would first need to handle business against its final three conference foes, beginning with this weekend’s match-up against Norfolk State in the Greatest Homecoming on Earth.
Kickoff is set for 1 p.m. on Saturday at the newly-renamed BB&T Stadium.
“I think it’s very important that we stick to our regular routine this week, and if we do that we will be fine,” said Washington, now in his first season as head coach after serving for seven years as defensive coordinator under Rod Broadway. “We always say homecoming is not for the football team. It’s for the alumni that are coming back home.”
Fans and alumni still boast that Broadway never lost a homecoming game during this tenure at A&T, prevailing in those contests by an average margin of 31.8 points.
If Washington hopes to follow in his mentor’s footsteps he’ll need his team to jump on the Spartans early and suffocate NSU’s struggling offense.
The Spartans (3-4 overall, 1-3 MEAC) enter on a three-game losing streak. During that span they’ve been outscored by a margin of 85-9. Their offense is currently ranked seventh in the 10-team MEAC, averaging just 16.3 points per game.
Unfortunately, the Aggies will be without the services of star cornerback Franklin “Mac” McCain III, who suffered a torn ACL in A&T’s 35-10 victory at Bethune-Cookman two weeks ago.
Washington announced Monday that McCain will require season-ending surgery, but said he doesn’t anticipate a big drop-off in production from back-up cornerback Amir McNeil. McNeil, who has seen action in all eight games, has recorded 14 tackles and four pass breakups this season.
“I have a lot of confidence in Amir McNeil,” said Washington about the redshirt freshman defensive back. “He played man-to-man coverage well enough that we didn’t have to change a whole lot of what we do. Now, we are going to have to be able to give him some help at times we deem necessary. But I’m looking forward to seeing how good he plays.”
On the defensive line, A&T junior Darryl Johnson is making a strong push for MEAC Defensive Player of the Year honors, currently leading the conference with eight sacks to go with his 12.5 tackles for loss.
This contest will also serve as Senior Day for 22 Aggie players, a group that will surely go down as one of the most decorated classes ever.
“There are several guys who have contributed to our success the past few years who will be moving on,” said Washington. “We are grateful for all they have done in their time here and look forward to them being successful in all their future endeavors.”
It will likely be an emotional final home game for redshirt-senior quarterback Lamar Raynard who will finish his career as the school recorder holder in a number of passing categories, including career touchdown passes (63).
After being mired in an early season slump, Raynard appears to have righted the ship in recent weeks. He now leads a balanced offense that has seen 10 different A&T receivers have catch passes in the last four games.
Against Bethune-Cookman, Raynard completed 11-of-14 passes for 189 yards and two touchdowns in just two quarters of action before sitting out the entire second half with a sore back.
This week he will have a full complement of weapons available, including big play receivers Zach Leslie (seven touchdowns), Elijah Bell (three touchdowns), Malik Wilson (three touchdowns) and Ron Hunt (two touchdowns).
The Aggies’ ground game is led by senior running back Marquell Cartwright, who currently ranks second in the conference with 632 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Cartwright is joined in the backfield by Jah-Maine Martin, a transfer from Coastal Carolina who has quickly emerged as a legitimate long-run threat. Martin currently has four rushing touchdowns on the season, including a 67 yarder against Bethune-Cookman.
Following Norfolk State, the Aggies will travel to Savannah State on November 10 before finishing the regular season in enemy territory against arch rival North Carolina Central on November 17.
“I think our bye week came at a very opportune time for us because we had several kids that were banged up and needed the time off,” Washington said. “We now have three big ball games left in the (regular) season and that’s where all my focus is right now.”