Head coach Sam Washington had a long list of what went wrong in NC A&T’s season-opening loss to Furman. Many of them boiled down to one factor.
“We were rusty,” he said.
That’s understandable. While many FCS teams played in the spring, A&T opted out of last season entirely and was playing its first game since Dec. 21, 2019, when the Aggies won the Celebration Bowl.
That led to some unusual things going wrong — including a play call that didn’t get heard because the people on the sideline receiving the message from upstairs only listened on one headset earphone.
There were also on-field issues.
“We dropped two extra point snaps,” he said. “We didn’t make good choices on run-pass options.”
Now A&T will get the chance to even its record against another team that is pointing at a long list of mistakes that kept it from getting a victory in a winnable opener — the Duke Blue Devils.
The Aggies head to Duke on Friday night with both teams needing a win badly.
A&T has a bye week followed by its annual rivalry game against NC Central before starting its league schedule in its new conference, the Big South.
Duke faces an even more daunting schedule with Northwestern following the Aggies to Durham. Duke then concludes its nonconference schedule with Kansas before leaping into the ACC slate against the rival Tar Heels. Other than the Aggies, Kansas and possibly Georgia Tech appear to be Duke’s best chances to get a win this season. While coach David Cutcliffe is still praised by Duke athletic department officials for rebuilding the program, back-to-back losses to Charlotte and A&T, on the heels of a 2-9 season, could put anyone on the hot seat.
Normally, a game against an FCS team would be a chance for a Power Five team to get well, but nothing is assured for the Blue Devils, who became the first major conference team to lose to Charlotte in the opener.
A&T won the HBCU national championship in its last game before Furman, and the Aggies will address their biggest weakness simply by having played a game more recently than 20 months ago.
“We’ll be better prepared this upcoming week,” Washington said.
They’ll also be much more complete. The Aggies were playing without a host of key players in the opener, including the entire defensive line.
“Our front four — our legit front four — will be back this coming Saturday,” Washington declared, knocking on the wood lectern just to be safe. “We were missing all four of them (against Furman). That’s tough. But Devin Harrell, Jermaine (McDaniel), Karfa (Kaba) and Michael Branch — we’re happy to have those guys back.”
Three of the four — everyone except Kaba — played for the 2019 championship team, combining for 26.5 tackles for loss and 16.5 sacks.
They were certainly missed last week.
“We weren’t able to get pressure on the quarterback,” Washington said. “If he’s sitting there patting the ball, they’re going to have big plays. … If you lose your front four, there’s going to be a slippery drop-off. I don’t care who you are.”
Several other key defensive players also missed the game, although it won’t be clear until closer to game time how many will return. The list includes rover William Jones, defensive backs Janaz Sumpter and Herbert Booker, and receiver Zach Leslie.
Two players that did see time in the opener are also likely to miss time. Linebacker Jacob Roberts was ejected in the second half for targeting and has to sit out the first half against Duke. Cornerback DJ Crossen left the game with an injury, and Washington confirmed he’s in the concussion protocol.
Duke will need to limit explosive plays on defense after allowing Charlotte to score twice in the final three minutes to pull out an upset win. Cutcliffe pointed out that the 49ers gained 218 yards on six plays.
One area where the Blue Devils could have an advantage is in the ground game.
“We had a lot of emphasis on stopping the run,” Washington said of the Furman game, “and when we needed to stop them most, we did not.” The Aggies gave up 125 yards on the ground in the loss.
Duke running back Mataeo Durant set a Blue Devils single-game rushing record with 255 yards on the ground against Charlotte, including a pair of 50-plus yard touchdown runs.
“They are faster,” Washington said of Duke’s personnel when compared to Furman’s. “No. 21 (Durant) can fly. … Speed is going to be the significant difference between those two teams.”
While rust was the story of Week 1 and speed appears to be the big difference this week, the game could come down to one of the most common culprits in losing football games — mistakes. A&T and Duke made plenty in season-opening losses. The team that limits them this week could be the one to come away with a crucial win.