HAMPTON, Va – Sophomore punt returner Khris Gardin said he wasn’t worried about the North Carolina A&T football team losing a 17-point halftime lead to Hampton Saturday afternoon. “I just knew if everyone did their job well we weren’t going to have a problem,” said Gardin.
He certainly fulfilled all of his occupational duties as he returned four punts for 203 yards in the Aggies 45-31 win over Hampton at Armstrong Stadium. His 71-yard punt return for touchdown in the fourth quarter gave the Aggies a 38-31 lead which was followed by a Marcus Albert interception that gave the Aggies the ball at the Hampton 1-yard line.
An unsportsmanlike penalty moved the Aggies back to the 16, but redshirt freshman quarterback Lamar Raynard was able to find junior Denzel Keyes on a 15-yard out pattern which set up junior Tarik Cohen’s 2-yard touchdown run that put the feisty Pirates away for good with 3:17 remaining in the game. The Aggies (3-1, 1-0 MEAC) 45 points were the most they have scored against Hampton, surpassing the 41 points they scored against Hampton in 1999.
It was also N.C. A&T’s first win at Armstrong since 2000, ending a six-game losing streak to the Pirates in Hampton, Va.
Gardin’s day was also record breaking as he averaged 50.75 yards per return (at least three returns) for a new single-game school record, overcoming Curtis Deloatch’s 30.3 per return against Howard in 2001. Gardin was not eligible for the NCAA single-game per return record because he only had four returns, and the NCAA requires at least five.
“We knew their punter averaged about 40 yards per punt so we knew there were going to be times where he over kicked his coverage,” said Gardin. “All we had to do was hold our blocks and give me time to catch the ball. Once you catch the ball, see the open hole and follow your blocks, good things will happen.”
Gardin had first-half punt returns of 42, 45 and 45 in the first half. Thanks to those returns, N.C. A&T started four different possessions in Hampton territory. Gardin’s second 45-yard punt return put the Aggies in position to have a four-play, 14-yard drive on their final possession of the first half as Cohen scored from three yards out to give N.C. A&T a 31-14 halftime lead. The Aggies built the lead despite only having 120 yards of offense as their longest scoring drive of the first half went 45 yards.
“It just goes to show you how important the kicking game is,” said N.C. A&T head coach Rod Broadway. “The kicking game put us in position to have a short field and a 17-point lead.”
Hampton (2-3, 1-2 MEAC) began to avoid Gardin in the second-half kicking game while graduate quarterback David Watford and his receivers began to give N.C. A&T trouble. The Pirates opened the second half with a 10-play, 67-yard touchdown drive and then benefited from a fumble by N.C. A&T senior quarterback Kwashaun Quick. Hampton recovered Quick’s fumble at the N.C. A&T 32 and scored eight plays later to cut the Aggies lead to seven, 31-24.
N.C. A&T maintained its lead into the fourth quarter, but a 48-yard completion from Watford to Twan Mixon was complemented by a 13-yard halfback pass from Mixon to Sequan Gooding that tied the game at 31 with 12:08 remaining in the game.
“They kept fighting, and they kept making plays,” said Broadway. “They came down with some tough catches and made a game of it. We were just trying to figure out some plays that worked for us and trying to figure out how to get them stopped. That was our major concern. Even though it tightened up a little bit, I never felt like we were going to lose the game. I knew somebody would make a play.”
That play came after Aggies junior kicker Cody Jones missed a 23-yard field goal. Hampton took over at the Aggies 20 but went three-and-out. Christian Faber-Kinney, who averaged 46.3 yards per punt Saturday, booted a 47-yard punt that bounced around for a while before Gardin finally got a hold of it. He paused for a second, set up his blockers and then sprinted through a huge hole before cutting to the right to score.
“I can’t believe they kicked it in bounds,” said Broadway. “If he can get his hands on it that kid is going to try to make a play.”
Cohen led the Aggies offensively with 107 yards and three touchdowns on 22 carries. Watford was 18-for-40 for 242 yards passing, three touchdowns and the one interception to Albert. The Aggies return to the Tidewater area next week to face Norfolk State at Dick Price Stadium at 2 p.m.