NC A&T coach Sam Washington has had Saturday’s date with Gardner-Webb circled on his calendar for quite some time.
But not for what would appear to be obvious reasons.
Though the Aggies need to beat Gardner-Webb to take the Big South championship and earn an automatic bid to the 24-team FCS playoff field, Washington, however, is out for vengeance.
The Runnin’ Bulldogs knocked off NC A&T 35-27 in the 2021 season finale at Truist Stadium in Greensboro to bookend a 5-6 season and losing Big South conference record.
“This is a ballgame that had been circled on my calendar since last year,” said Washington this week. “I am so excited to go down there and get it on. They won. That’s what I remember. There were a lot of turnovers and big plays.”
Avenging last season’s loss to Gardner-Webb aside, it won’t be difficult for the Aggies to be motivated with a conference championship on the line.
But for NC A&T (7-3, 4-0 Big South), even playing in a game with so much at stake didn’t seem possible. The Aggies lost the season opener to NC Central at the Dukes Mayo Classic in Charlotte then were hammered on the road by then No. 1 North Dakota State and ACC opponent Duke over the first three weeks.
The Aggies have not lost since, winning seven straight to set up an opportunity to win its first conference championship since leaving the MEAC.
“It almost brings me to tears just the thought of it from where we started to where we are now,” said Washington. “How those kids stuck together and believed and didn’t miss a beat.”
The Aggies have arrived at its biggest game of the year on the strength of running back Bhayshul Tuten, who has run for 1,255 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2022.
Is he nervous about Saturday considering what’s on the line?
“A lot of people, a lot of players tend to be caught up in the hype over the game,” Tuten told the News & Record. “That brings butterflies and nervousness. But if you look at it as a normal, regular game, there are no worries.”