Sam Washington made an auspicious debut as North Carolina State A&T’s head coach Saturday. The former Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals cornerback guided the No.14 Aggies to a heart-stopping 20-17 victory over No. 6 Jacksonville State Saturday night in the Guardian Credit Union FCS Kickoff Classic at Cramton Bowl in Montgomery, Ala.
Washington succeeded Rod Broadway, who retired after leading the Aggies to the Black College Football National Championship and an unbeaten record 12-0 last season. The defeat was the first regular season loss to an FCS in two seasons — a streak of 41 games – for the Gamecocks, the four-time Ohio Valley Conference defending champions. North Carolina A&T extended its winning streak to 13 consecutive games with the victory, and fifth-year senior quarterback Lamar Raynard is now 27-0 as the Aggies’ starter.
The victory was a rare and momentous win for all HBCUs who have a history of not faring well against non-HBCUs, a fact that wasn’t lost on Washington.
“If you look at the history of HBCU’s playing in these type of games against ranked teams, whether it is the playoffs or regular season, they haven’t fared very well,’’ he said. “Tonight, we did feel like we were not only representing ourselves but our conference and HBCUs. It was an important win.”
Washington, an All-SWAC performer at Mississippi Valley State as a collegian, was the Aggies’ defensive coordinator for seven seasons under Broadway. Fittingly, his first head coaching win came courtesy of his defensive unit. They forced a pair of fourth-quarter fumbles – the last coming with Jacksonville State at North Carolina A&T’s 18-yard line with 17 seconds remaining in the game that sealed the win.
First, Amir McNeil separated Josh Pearson from the ball after Pearson had gained 23 yards on a passion reception for quarterback Zerrick Cooper. Richie Kittles recovered the ball for the Aggies at 2:14 of the fourth quarter.
Needing one first down to ice the game, North Carolina A&T went three-and-out and gave the ball back to the Gamecocks with 2:01 showing on the clock. Cooper proceeded to march Jacksonville State into position to win the game or at least send it into overtime.
But Darryl Johnson Jr. saved the day for the Aggies – and got Washington his first coaching victory – when he sacked Cooper for a five-yard loss and knocked the ball loose in the process. Antoine Wilder fell on it for the Aggies, who then ran the clock out for the win. The Aggies forced four turnovers in the contest, which was scoreless in the fourth quarter but had four lead changes in the third period.
“I knew they couldn’t score again if we wanted to win the game,” Washington said. “We had to stop the faucet from running so to speak because they were having their way with us for a little while there. They still kept making successful plays. But we stopped them from scoring again even when they got in the red zone. We persevered.”
Raynard, the reigning MEAC Offensive Player of the Year and the preseason pick by conference coaches and Sports Information Director to win the honor this season as well, had a sub par performance. He only completed 12 of 34 passes for 111 yards. However, he threw a pair of touchdown passes, a 24-yard strike to Zachary Leslie in the first quarter and a four-yard toss to Elijah Bell in the third quarter that provided the margin of victory. Malik Wilson returned a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown to help the Aggies’ cause.
North Carolina A&T’s vaunted defense, among the tops in FCS during Washington’s tenure as its coordinator, had a strong game. The Aggies held Jacksonville State to 84 yards on 34 carries. Cooper, a transfer from Clemson, shredded North Carolina A&T’s defense for 320 yards and two touchdowns through the air.
The Aggies’ defensive opportunism compensated for their inability to contain the Gamecocks’ offense in the second half. After holding Jacksonville State to a meager 94 yards total offense in the first two quarter, North Carolina A&T was sieve-like on defense and yielded 309 yards after halftime as the Gamecocks posted 403 total yards in the game. North Carolina A&T ended the game with 148 total yards.
Rice 31, Prairie View A&M 28 – Jack Fox booted a 23-yard field goal as time expired to give the Owls, an FBS program, a narrow victory over the Panthers of the FCS and their first-year, first-time head coach Eric Dooley. The Owls, who averaged 16.3 points a game last season, ended a 10-game losing streak with the win. They were able to hold of upstart Prairie View thanks to an overpowering running game. The Owls racked up 310 yards on the ground with their new-look attack that was designed by first-year offensive Jerry Mack, who resigned as head coach at North Carolina Central to join Mike Bloomgren’s staff.
Emmanuel Usapka led the way with 173 yards. He came into the game with 317 yards on 74 carries in his career. Austin Walter added 83 yards on 11 carries, and he scored a pair of touchdowns. Prairie View fell behind 16-0 in the second quarter and was down 19-7 after scoring on each of its first four possessions.
The Panthers stormed back to take a 28-19 lead with 8:05 left in the third quarter. However, two costly turnovers swung momentum in favor of Rice. Anthony Epke had a strip-sack of Prairie View quarterback Jalen Morton, and Dylan Silccox recovered the ball for the Owls at the Panthers’ 25. Walter scored on an eight yard lead to cut the score to 28-26 early in the fourth quarter. Prairie View went three-and-out on its ensuring possession, and a bad snap on a punt on fourth down resulted in a safety that tied the score and set the stage for Fox’s winning kick.
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