After losing to rival North Carolina Central in the Duke’s Mayo Classic, Sam Washington struggled to sleep thinking about all the opportunities North Carolina A&T missed during its 28-13 defeat in Charlotte a week ago.
It is likely the veteran head coach remained restless trying to recover from what he called “a bitter loss” while also looking ahead at the prospect of now preparing his Aggies to play No. 1 North Dakota State in Fargo on Saturday (1:30 p.m. DT, ABC, ESPN+).
The Bison (1-0), have won nine of the last 11 FCS national championships, including the last three. The Aggies (0-1), preseason favorites to win the Big South have won four HBCU national championships since 2015.
The Aggies have played the No. 1 team in the nation before. In 1999, N.C. A&T defeated No. 1 Tennessee State 24-10 in the first round of the FCS playoffs.
This matchup is two years in the making. Originally scheduled to be played in 2020, the game — touted as a battle between the best of the FCS versus the best of Black college football — was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite coming off a loss and being decided underdogs, North Carolina A&T — a program that has previously knocked off ranked FCS opponents and even FBS schools in recent years — will not be intimidated by this juggernaut.
“We will be prepared,” Washington said during a media availability this week. “We will fight them. “We know we are playing a worthy opponent, a nationally ranked team.
“I will really like to see where we are and how we stand up to that level of competition.”
If the Aggies are to go into the Fargodome and pull off the upset, they will have to get its running game back to form.
In the loss to N.C. Central, the Aggies were only able to muster 82 yards on 16 carries between running backs Bhayshual Tuten and Alston Hooker, who combined to rush for 23 yards. It was actually freshman quarterback Zach Yeager leading the way with 59 yards on the ground.
But Yeager himself might not be the only quarterback on N.C. A&T roster who figures in the game plan come Saturday. Washington indicated that he would consider going with Yeager and backup redshirt senior Jalen Fowler.
Though Washington praised Yeager for his poise in the season opener, the N.C. A&T offense was shut out in the second and Yeager missed on 11 of his final 15 passing attempts in the second half.
“Quarterback play could have been a little bit better, but it’s a freshman and there are going to be some growing pains,” said Washington. “We will fix that other stuff.”
North Carolina A&T was also hurt by nine penalties and the defense’s inability to get off the field on third down, allowing 10 of 16 conversions. This is something that can’t happen against an NDSU offense that rolled up 386 yards, with 274 of those yards coming on the ground in a 56-14 win over Drake.
Before heading to Fargo, Washington suggested that the matchup will not only be a strategic test but a physical and emotional one, too.
“How we play,” he said. “How we play and present ourselves. That’s going to be very critical. And do we have that fight in us, or do we quit and fold? That’s definitely a measuring stick for me. To find out who’s willing to fight to the end.”
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