RICHMOND, Va. – Both No. 17 North Carolina A&T and No. 12 Richmond entered the first round of the NCAA FCS playoffs with disappointing loss the prior week to overcome.
But considering each team had two very different goals at the outset of the 2016 season, it seemed as if Richmond had the easier adjustment as they advanced to the round of 16 with a 39-10 win over the Aggies Saturday evening at Robins Stadium.
The Spiders have had their sights on a national championship since the start of the season. Those aspirations escalated after their first game when they upset a Virginia team out of the ACC. But the Spiders lost two of their last three going into the playoffs including blowout loss to a William & Mary team that finished 5-6 this season.
Meanwhile the Aggies came into the season looking for another appearance in the Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl which brings with it a substantial payout, a MEAC championship and an opportunity to win a black college football national championship. But along the way the Aggies lost their top two quarterbacks in sophomores Kylil Carter and Lamar Raynard.
Despite those two significant losses, things were looking good for the Aggies until they entered a matchup of undefeated teams in the MEAC last week with the Celebration Bowl on the line. The Aggies were defeated by archrival North Carolina Central 42-21 in Durham, N.C., sending the Eagles to the Celebration Bowl and the Aggies to their first playoff bid in 13 years.
“At the beginning of the season we had high expectations and goals. We wanted to win the conference outright and go back to the Celebration Bowl,” said N.C. A&T defensive lineman Marquis Ragland referring to the Aggies sharing the MEAC crown the previous two seasons. “Losing out on that opportunity was heartbreaking.”
Yet on Tuesday N.C. A&T head coach Rod Broadway said he had a-ha moment. He realized the Aggies were only one of 24 teams with the opportunity to vie for a national championship.
“But here we were sitting around feeling sorry for ourselves,” said Broadway. “But that’s what happens when you’ve built your program to a certain point. I’m sitting there trying to convince my team 9-2 is a pretty good season, and that we still had something to play for.”
By Wednesday Broadway saw his team coming around and excited about the playoff opportunity. That is certainly how the game started for the Aggies. The N.C. A&T defense stopped the Spiders on a 4th-and-1 from the Spiders 39-yard line on the first drive of the game. Nine plays later the Aggies were in the end zone thanks to a 12-yard touchdown pass from fifth-year quarterback Oluwafemi Bamiro to senior Denzel Keyes.
“We went for it there because we were trying to send a statement. We wanted it to be known that we were not going to go conservative with our offense,” said Richmond coach Danny Rocco who lost star quarterback Kyle Lauletta to a season-ending knee injury last week. “It was also important to us that we hit a big play with Kevin right after we went down.”
Sophomore Kevin Johnson who replaced Lauletta on Saturday, did just that. On the first play of the ensuing drive, Johnson connected with Jarmal Bevels for a 47-yard completion. He then connected with Tyler Wilkins for a 24-yard completion. Those two plays eventually led to Deontez Thompson scoring on a 4th-and-goal from two yards out to tie the game at 7.
The Spiders got another boost when Dejon Brissett returned a Steven Sawicki punt 91 yards for a touchdown and a 14-7 lead. A Marquell Cartwright fumble on the Aggies next possession led to a Griffin Trau 39-yard field goal early in the second quarter. Even after another Trau field goal gave the Spiders a 20-7 lead, the Aggies had a chance to cut into the Spiders lead after a 66-yard reception by freshman Elijah Bell gave the Aggies the ball on the Richmond 2.
But N.C. A&T star running back Tarik Cohen fumbled on the next play, giving the Spiders the ball back. It ended a streak 528 straight touches without losing a fumble for Cohen. The Spiders went into the half ahead 23-7 after another Trau field goal thanks to the turnover.
“We dug a hole for ourselves with a punt return for a touchdown, two fumbles, two interference calls and we couldn’t overcome all of that especially against a good team like Richmond,” said Broadway.
The Aggies did come out of the locker room with some energy. Cohen’s 45-yard run led to a 28-yard field goal by senior Cody Jones to cut Richmond’s lead to 23-10. But the Aggies were only able to muster 32 more yards the rest of the game as the Spiders started to pull away. The Spiders were able to move the ball most of the game with their backup quarterback as he finished 15-for-23 for 315 yards and a touchdown.
“I thought (Richmond) did an excellent job of preparing their quarterback, and I thought he played extremely well,” said Broadway about Johnson. “He played with confidence and was able to hit some wide receivers. He was unbelievable for his first time playing and getting prepared in a short week.
Our issue is we didn’t get the same performance from that position from our players as they got from their player. We have too many skill people not to be able to get them the ball and let them play a little bit. We’ve got to get a quarterbacks healthy No. 1, and then surround them with some more people that can make some plays for us.”
Raynard and Carter will return along the entire offensive line except one. Keyes is the only starter the Aggies lose at wide receiver and of course the Aggies will miss the conference’s all-time leading rusher in Cohen. The Aggies lose only two starters on defense. Therefore, the expectation to reach the Celebration Bowl will remain the same.
“It’s sad it ended like this because we had high hopes for this season,” said Broadway. “Nine wins is outstanding by anybody’s standards, but this is not what we wanted. We wanted better. But we have to take this, go back and evaluate our program and see what in what ways we need to get better.”
Courtesy: NC A&T Sports