GREENSBORO – How hard is to reach 8-0? No Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference team since the league started in 1971 has ever finished with a perfect overall record.
The last Southwestern Athletic Conference team to go undefeated was the 1991 11-0-1 Alabama State Hornets. Only two coaches on the North Carolina A&T football staff – head coach Rod Broadway and running back coach Shawn Gibbs – have ever been associated with college football teams that were 8-0. How hard is it? Going into Saturday there were only seven undefeated teams remaining in NCAA FCS play and eight on the Division I-A level.
Consider North Carolina A&T is the only 8-0 team on the FCS level after Saturday. They got that way with a come-from-behind 24-20 win over Bethune-Cookman at Aggie Stadium.
How hard is it? The gentlemen who make up the 2017 N.C. A&T football team are the first Aggie football players to experience 8-0 since the 1927 team. A win in two weeks at Norfolk State, and the 2017 football team will stand alone as the only in school history to be 9-0.
“I don’t care what level you’re on, it is hard to win eight in a row,” said Broadway, who also witnessed his team improving to 5-0 in the MEAC. “Winning is hard enough, but when you’re carrying a little extra weight with it makes it a little bit harder. We don’t need to be focused on anything but the next game.”
Bethune-Cookman (3-4, 2-2 MEAC) did their best to make reaching 8-0 difficult. N.C. A&T trailed 20-14 going into the fourth quarter, but fortunately a wacky interception toward the end of the third quarter got the crowd involved while giving the Aggies a little added motivation.
BCU quarterback Akevious Williams tried to zip a pass over the head of freshman cornerback Mac McCain(Dudley High School) with a little more than three minutes to play in the third. McCain leaped vertically to pick off the pass, but instead it bounced off his hands, flew high in the air and landed in the mitts of fifth-year senior Jeremy Taylor. As Taylor tried to secure the INT, BCU’s Anthony Cruz swiped it out of hands, but fortunately redshirt junior Deion Jones was running in that direction and finally corralled the hot potato for N.C. A&T as the Aggies took over 1st-and-10 from the BCU 43-yard line.
“Our coaches always teach us to run to the football,” said Jones, who led the Aggies with 10 tackles. “I was honestly about to deliver a big hit to the guy behind Jeremy. But when I saw (Jeremy) dropping (the ball) I said, ‘this is what you run to the ball for.’”
Ten plays after Jones’ interception, freshman kicker Noel Ruiz made a 30-yard field goal with 13:05 remaining in the game to cut the Wildcats lead to 20-17. Jones and the rest of the Aggies defense stiffened from there. The No. 3 defense in the nation held BCU to a three-and-out after the field goal to give the Aggies the ball on their own 48. A 10-yard run by junior Marquell Cartwright(High Point Andrews High School) and a 13-yard completion to sophomore Ron Hunt gave the Aggies a 1st-and-10 from the BCU 29. Offensive coordinator Chip Hester then decided to throw in some deception.
Junior quarterback Lamar Raynard pitched the ball to Cartwright, graduate receiver Jaquil Capel then came from the far side of the field as if he was going to run a reverse. Capel took the handoff from Cartwright, stopped, planted his feet and threw a 25-yard completion to Raynard who snuck out of the backfield to find himself wide open. Raynard left his receiver duties behind and returned to quarterback to toss his third touchdown of the game, a 4-yard completion to Trey Scott for the go-ahead score with 8:26 left to play.
“I should have scored,” said Raynard about his quick appearance as a receiver. “It was a great call by coach Hester, but really I just wanted to make the catch. As long as I made the catch, I knew we would be in the red zone. It was a great throw by Jaquil too.”
N.C. A&T’s defense stiffened again. Another BCU three-and-out gave the Aggies the ball at their own 39 with 6:10 remaining. It was then Cartwright time. N.C. A&T ran Cartwright seven times in a 10-play drive that took more than five minutes off the clock. Fifty of Cartwright’s game-high 91 yards rushing came in the fourth quarter. When the Wildcats finally got the ball back at their 27, there was 47 seconds remaining. They reached their own 48 before junior Timadre Abram broke up a pass from Larry Brihm to end the game.
“I respect Bethune’s program so much because when I started at A&T, you had to go through Bethune-Cookman and South Carolina State if you wanted to win a championship in this league,” said Broadway. “Now I’m proud to say, you’ve got to come through here to win a championship. If you’re coming down Lindsay and Sullivan, we’ll meet you at the corner and we’ll get it on.”
Raynard(High Point Andrews High School) led the Aggies offensively by throwing for 177 yards on 11-for-25 passing with no interceptions. His performance helped him become fifth Aggie to pass for more than 2,000 yards in a season. The Aggies held the Wildcats to 73 yards of offense in the second half.
The Wildcats took a 13-7 lead with 8:37 remaining in the first half on a 30-yard touchdown pass from Brihm to Frank Brown. The Aggies answered three minutes later with a 45-yard touchdown pass from Raynard to Xavier Griffin to lead 14-13 at the half. Capel scored the Aggies first touchdown on quick out route that Capel turned into a 62-yard catch and run in the first quarter.
N.C. A&T will be off next week before heading to Norfolk, Va., to play Norfolk State who upset North Carolina Central on Saturday.