MONTGOMERY, Ala. – A 58-year old rookie head football coach named Sam Washington was staring at some incredible odds on Saturday in the Guardian Credit Union FCS Kickoff Classic against No. 6 Jacksonville State the Cramton Bowl.
It was his first game as a head coach. He was taking over for a North Carolina A&T team with high expectations after going 12-0 last season. He was replacing a coaching legend while also facing a Division I-FCS power in JSU with zero losses in the Ohio Valley Conference over the previous four seasons. Washington was doing all of this under an enormous spotlight with millions watching on ESPN including the entire historically black college and university nation hoping N.C. A&T could finally be the HBCU to knock off an FCS playoff team.
Mr. Sam Washington didn’t blink. The Aggies forced four Gamecock turnovers including a forced fumble and recovery in the final seconds for a 20-17 win over the Gamecocks. In defeating the Gamecocks, the Aggies pulled off one of the most significant wins in school history and in HBCU football history.
Not bad, rookie.
“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. Tonight, we did feel like we were not only representing ourselves but our conference and HBCUs. It was an important win.”
There was a lot to prove on Saturday, not only for Washington, who was replacing his longtime mentor Rod Broadway but for Aggie nation. Even though the Aggies were the only undefeated team in FCS play last season, they did not participate in the NCAA FCS playoffs. As the conference champion of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, they fulfilled their obligation to play in the Celebration Bowl in Atlanta against SWAC champion Grambling State instead.
Some wondered how legit the Aggies 12-0 season was considering they did not test it in the playoffs. Plus, the Aggies last playoff test ended in a 39-10 defeat to Richmond on Nov. 26, 2016. That date is also the last time the Aggies lost a football game.
Face it, N.C. A&T was seeking the respect and proof that their 12-0 record was legit. Junior defensive end Darryl Johnson finalized the legitimization when on a 2nd-and-10 from the A&T 18-yard line, Johnson recorded a strip sack on quarterback Zach Cangelosi with 18 seconds remaining. Linebacker Antoine Wilder recovered to give the Aggies their 13th straight win and their second straight win over a ranked opponent.
“From the time I came off the ball I was yelling I’ve got to get it. I’ve got to get the ball to end this,” said Johnson. “I put my heart and soul in it, so I knew something good had to happen. They were driving on us and putting pressure on us. We just had to keep playing until we made a play.”
N.C. A&T did struggle with the Gamecocks passing attack in the second half. The Jacksonville State generated only 91 yards of offense while piling up 97 yards in penalties in the first half. The Aggies led 7-3 at the half on a 24-yard touchdown pass from Lamar Raynard to receiver Zachary Leslie in the first quarter.
JSU did unleash two big pass plays in the third quarter that resulted in touchdowns. The first was a 49-yard long bomb Daniel Byrd from Zerrick Cooper to give the Gamecocks their first lead of the game at 10-7. Malik Wilson quickly erased that lead with a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, the first of his career. But Cooper put JSU back in front with a 40-yard toss to Josh Pearson.
“We are excited that the ball decided to bounce our way a few times,” said Washington. “Looking at the numbers, statistically you would think the win was in reverse. They passed for over 300 yards and our secondary, in my opinion, didn’t play up to their capability. We’ve got to get that fixed.”
The ball certainly did bounce in the Aggies favor after the Pearson touchdown. JSU tried to seize on their momentum with an onside kick. But instead, they were called for trying to impede N.C. A&T from receiving the kick. The 10-yard penalty gave the Aggies a first down at the JSU 36. Six plays later, Elijah Bell battled and tussled with a defender for a Raynard pass in the end zone and won to give the Aggies their decisive 20-17 margin with 2:36 to play.
It was Raynard’s 50th touchdown pass and Bell’s 20th touchdown reception. The Raynard to Bell duo has connected 17 times for touchdowns.
“I knew they couldn’t score again if we wanted to win the game,” said Washington. “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.”
And because of it, Washington has career win No. 1.
N.C. A&T will face another humungous challenge next week as they travel to Greenville, N.C. to face East Carolina at 6 p.m.