The Greatest Homecoming on EarthBy Semaj Marsh, Peacemaker Sports / October 28, 2021
The morning after his team’s shocking 30-9 loss at Hampton last Saturday, A&T football coach Sam Washington found himself in uncharted territory.
For the first time since taking over the Aggies’ head job in 2018, Washington was suddenly forced into crisis management mode, needing to solve the mystery of his team’s recent struggles, and desperately hoping to prevent the rest of the season from careening off the rails.
That was the grim reality following the Aggies’ second straight defeat, an uninspired effort that saw A&T trail for most of the contest, commit three turnovers and never really look like a team that was fighting for its postseason life.
“That was a very tough loss,” said Washington. “It was one of those games that I thought was going to see-saw early. We did some things better and we did some things not so well. That inconsistency is one of the concerns we’re having right now.”
After Hampton jumped out to a 7-0 lead on the game’s opening drive thanks to a 30-yard touchdown catch by Jadakis Bonds, A&T quickly retook the lead with a defensive safety and a 74-yard catch and run by freshman receiver Jamison Warren.
However, that would be the Aggies’ final highlight of the afternoon, as the Pirates seized control of the line of scrimmage and outscored A&T 23-0 the rest of the way.
The Aggies have now failed to score a single point in the second half of their last two games.
It was a defeat that dropped their record to 2-2 in the Big South and all but eliminated any chance of earning an at-large playoff berth. With a 3-4 overall mark, the Aggies are now under .500 after seven games for the first time since 2012.
“It’s very tough, when you look at it from that psychological standpoint,” said Washington. “but I think it’s very important that we just do what we do and do it well – which we have not done. I still believe we can play better than we have played. I know that we can.”
To add to that pressure, A&T’s next opponent is the two-time defending Big South champion Monmouth Hawks who will be well-rested, coming off a bye week.
And, of course, the Aggies will be celebrating their “Greatest Homecoming on Earth” this weekend – an event that raises the stakes even higher and will put the current state of the football program on full display.
Kickoff is set for 1 p.m. on Saturday at Truist Stadium. All fans must show a proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test to enter the stadium grounds.
“Initially when I found out we were playing Monmouth I was a little bewildered, to say the least,” admitted Washington who has never lost an A&T homecoming game since arriving here in 2012 as defensive coordinator for then-head coach Rod Broadway. “But as I thought about it, I think this is the perfect opportunity for us. To bring them into this environment with this great fanbase, it is a great opportunity to showcase what North Carolina A&T has to offer.”
Monmouth (4-3 overall) enters the game in a first-place tie with Kennesaw State at 3-0 in the Big South. They currently enjoy a 13-game conference winning streak and have won all three Big South games this season by an average of 27.0 points.
On paper, this looks like a very unfavorable matchup for the Aggies who will have to find a way to slow down Monmouth’s high-powered passing offense.
Led by sophomore quarterback Tony Muskett, the Hawks boast the third-ranked scoring offense in the Big South, averaging 30.4 points and 227 passing yards per game.
Comparatively, A&T is surrendering 276.4 yards per game through the air. If the Aggies maintain that pace, they will finish with the worst pass defense in school history.
“Defensively, we are missing a lot of injured guys,” said Washington. “I looked out in the fourth quarter and we had two freshmen playing at defensive end. Those are tough times when you have true freshman – kids who were in high school last year – performing for you. But I thought they fought hard and finished the game for us and that’s what mattered.”
Another concern during the last two weeks has been the stagnant performance of the A&T offense.
Through the first five games, the Aggies averaged 28.2 points per game. Over the last two contests, A&T has scored just nine points.
Senior running back Jah-Maine Martin, who ran for over 1,400 yards in 2019 and was named to the Walter Payton Award Watch list and a preseason All-American, has been disappointing in 2021.
Through seven games, he has rushed for only 315 yards on 90 carries for an average of 3.5 yards. After recording 23 touchdowns and seven 100-plus yard rushing games a season ago, Martin has scored only two touchdowns this season and has eclipsed the century mark on the ground just once.
“If I was able to put a finger on it, we would be able to run the ball a lot better than what we’ve been doing,” said Washington. “There’s various reasons, but one thing in particular has been the point attack. We’ve got to do a better job of winning the point of attack.”
During this week’s press conference, Washington said he constantly self-evaluates his program, but didn’t think the time was right for any major lineup changes at this point.
He still believes the Aggies can turn things around and said he was encouraged that his team leaders organized a players-only meeting on Monday.
“We’re looking forward to the energy that our fans will provide this weekend,” said Washington. “Just knowing that support is behind you, it gives you a little more to play for. I always say that you need to find a reason why to play football. And this is GHOE. What other reason do you need?”