MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Sam Washington was the defensive coordinator at NC A&T before taking over as head coach this season following the retirement of Rod Broadway.
So it’s only appropriate that his defense rose to the occasion to help him earn his first career victory.
The 14th-ranked Aggies forced and recovered a pair of fumbles in the final two minutes to hold on for a 20-17 victory against No. 6 Jacksonville State on Saturday in the season-opening FCS Kickoff at Cramton Bowl.
The win in the nationally televised game was the 13th straight for A&T dating back to last season, when it went undefeated on the way to winning the Historically Black Colleges and Universities national championship.
Although offense was expected to be the Aggies’ strength, thanks to the return of MEAC Player of the Year Lamar Raynard at quarterback, 1,000-yard rusher Marquell Cartwright and top receiver Elijah Bell, they struggled against Jacksonville State’s top-ranked defense.
A&T was only able to manage 148 total yards, 37 on the ground, and went three-and-out on its final four possessions. But its defense held strong and made a precarious three-point lead hold up.
The Aggies also had a little luck on their side, as Jacksonville State’s Cade Stinnett missed a pair of potential game-tying field goals in the fourth quarter. The second, from 41 yards out with 4:11 to play, was partially blocked by Kiaundric Richardson.
It was the first of three big plays by A&T to clinch the game.
After a short punt set the Gamecocks up near midfield, redshirt freshman defensive back Amir McNeill stripped the ball from receiver Josh Pearson at the end of a 23-yard gain. Teammate Richie Kittles recovered the fumble to end the threat.
But the Aggies found themselves right back in trouble after another quick possession and punt.
Jacksonville State then drove 57 yards on eight plays to the A&T 18 before the defense rose to the occasion again with less than a minute remaining. This time, preseason All-America defensive end Darryl Johnson sacked quarterback Zerrick Cooper and forced a fumble that was recovered by Antoine Wilder to seal the victory.
Despite being outplayed by Cooper, Raynard still did enough to improve his record as A&T’s starting quarterback to a perfect 27-0.
The senior completed 12 of 34 passes for 111 yards and an interception. But he also threw two touchdown passes, a 24-yarder to Zachary Leslie to open the scoring in the first quarter and a 4-yard fade to Bell in the third. The juggling catch turned out to be the game-winner, ending a wild five-minute stretch that saw all but 10 of the night’s points scored.
A&T led 7-3 at halftime, but fell behind for the first time on a 49-yard pass from Cooper to Daniel Byrd. The Aggies struck right back when Malik Wilson returned the ensuing kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown.
It took just three plays for Jacksonville State to regain the lead on a 40-yard pass from Cooper to Pearson. The Gamecocks attempted an onside kick after the score, but were called for fair catch interference, setting the stage for A&T’s final touchdown drive.
The Aggies will face another difficult road test next Saturday, when they travel to Greenville to play East Carolina in the Pirates’ opening game.