N.C. A&T’s Potential Game-Winning Drive Falls Short in Loss to RIU Rams, 31-24 Final

N.C. A&T’s Potential Game-Winning Drive Falls Short in Loss to RIU
Eli Brickhandler throws for a touchdown and rushes for another

KINGSTON, R.I. – North Carolina A&T is now a football team putting itself in a position to win ballgames even though the Aggies continue to endure heartbreak. The next logical step for the Aggies program is to turn heartbreak into a heart-pounding victory.

That will have to wait at least another week, unfortunately. A late turnover helped Rhode Island University (RIU) escape with a 31-24 win on its Senior Day Saturday afternoon at Meade Stadium. It marked the second time in three weeks the Aggies had a game-tying or winning drive inside enemy territory in progress and turned the ball over late in a crushing defeat.

The Aggies dropped to 1-9 overall and 0-7 in Coastal Athletic Association (CAA) Football Conference play. Rhode Island is 6-4 on the season and 4-3 in conference play.

But there continue to be signs that the Aggies’ program is moving in the right direction in the big picture of things. Saturday also marked the third straight game the Aggies have scored more than 20 points, the third consecutive game the Aggies have produced more than 300 yards of offense, the third straight time they have tossed a touchdown pass, the second straight game they have rushed over 200 yards and the second straight they have had the ball longer than their opponent.

Unfortunately, it also marked the second straight game the Aggies had to play without one of the best linebackers in FCS football, BJ Turner, as RIU running back Ja’Den McKenzie rushed for 233 yards and three touchdowns. It was McKenzie’s third TD run of the day, a 4-yard burst into the end zone that gave the Rams a 31-24 lead with 2:55 remaining in the game.

But RIU, facing a much more confident A&T offense than existed four weeks ago, had to give the Aggies the ball back with plenty of time to tie the game or take the lead with a two-point conversion. A 19-yard run by Kenji Christian and a 17-yard run by Shimique Blizzard gave the Aggies 1st-and-10 at the RIU 36-yard line.

On 2nd-and-10, Christian darted to the left, racing toward what looked like a positive play for the Aggies. However, Brent Jackson collided with Christian nine yards down the field, knocking the ball loose as RIU’s Malachi Burby recovered the ball for the Rams, essentially ending any hopes the Aggies had of securing their first-ever CAA Football Conference win.

“It was such a heartbreaking way to lose the game,” said A&T head coach Vincent Brown. “We were perfectly set up – time, timeouts, field position, offense marching the ball down to either tie or potentially go ahead and win it at the very end – but we turned the ball over once again. But it wasn’t just that. We dropped passes at inopportune times earlier. We had poor tackling throughout the game, not fitting the runs correctly. It was just too many errors to overcome.”

Eli Brickhandler got his third start of the season at quarterback. He compiled 249 yards of offense, throwing for 161 yards and a touchdown on 12-for-18 passing. He also rushed for 88 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries. Christian touched the ball 24 times for 124 yards, including 97 yards rushing and a touchdown.

The Rams, who came into the game with one of the best passing games in the conference, scored on their first drive as quarterback Kasim Hill found Kahtero Summers for a 34-yard catch and run to give the Rams a 7-0 lead. A&T answered when Brickhandler rolled to his left and found Amonte Jones open in the end zone for a touchdown as he stayed inbounds to complete the catch.

A&T took a 10-7 lead to open the second quarter as a 9-play, 48-yard drive culminated in a 28-yard field goal by Owen Daffer. RIU scored the next 17 points to take a 24-10 lead into the fourth quarter. That’s when the Aggies put together a 12-play drive that included a 32-yard run on a 3rd-and-23 by Brickhandler and a 22-yard completion to Ger-Cari Caldwell on a 4th-and-2. The drive ended with Christian scoring on a 1-yard TD run.

On RIU’s ensuing drive, linebacker Avarion Cole scooped up a Hill fumble and returned it 11 yards to the RIU 27 with 7:36 remaining in the game. Three plays later, Brickhandler scampered up the middle to score from 14 yards out to tie the game at 24 with 6:15 remaining, leading to the late-game excitement.

“I was so proud of the grit and determination our guys displayed throughout the entire course of the game,” said Brown. “That will pay dividends for us at some point.”