GREENSBORO - Red zone problems? What red zone problems?
North Carolina A&T turned a perceived weakness into a gigantic strength. A week after throwing two red zone interceptions and missing a 19-yard field goal, the Aggies scored all four times it made an appearance inside the Howard Bison red zone on Saturday afternoon.
An effective A&T offense was complemented by an A&T defense that intercepted three passes and returned two for touchdowns as the Aggies handed the Bison its first conference loss of the season with a 38-10 win in MEAC football action at Aggie Stadium.
Junior safety Travis Crosby and his 13 tackles led an Aggies defense that was able to shut out the Bison (4-2, 3-1 MEAC) in the second half. On the offensive end, senior running back Mike Mayhew finished with a season-high 138 yards rushing and one touchdown on 20 carries. In the process, he became just the 12th back in MEAC history to rush for more than 3,000 yards in a career. Mayhew is now 11th on the MEAC's all-time rushing list with 3,056 yards.
"We needed to go at these guys," A&T head coach Rod Broadway said. "We needed to run downhill, and when Mike is running downhill, he's something. He has great feet and great balance and pretty good vision. Now that he has taken a lot of that dancing out of his running, he's playing a lot better. He's hitting the line of scrimmage a little better, and I think he is starting to see the results."
Putting the ball into Mayhew's hands was just one of the ways the Aggies remedied their red zone issues. On several occasions, the Aggies ran the option with quarterback Lewis Kindle and Mayhew. Backup running back Ricky Lewis was utilized more in the offense as he scored the Aggies' first touchdown on an 18-yard touchdown run.
A&T also used a version of the wildcat formation inside the red zone, where the ball was directly snapped to Mayhew. The formation helped Mayhew score a 3-yard touchdown that gave the Aggies a 14-7 lead toward the end of the first quarter.
"We put in the package so we can get some scores when we're on the goal line," Mayhew said, adding that the team ran the formation on a limited basis last season.
"This is the first time we started doing it this year," he continued. "I love being able to get the ball immediately in my hand. It opens up thing faster, and coming from the backfield, it gives you time to see things develop. I can hit the hole faster when the ball comes directly to me."
Even with all the new wrinkles added to the offense over the past week, the most important element that made the Aggies' red zone offense better on Saturday was the protection of the football. A&T did not turn the ball over on Saturday, while benefiting from three Bison turnovers.
Junior cornerback D'Vonte Graham led the thievery. He intercepted two passes and returned the latter 58 yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter.
"I was glad they started throwing my way," Graham said. "That usually doesn't happen. Once I figured out they were throwing my way, I started jumping routes. It paid off in the end. I love making big plays because it lifts the team's morale. To see everyone jumping up and down on the sideline after you make a big play, it just builds our momentum, and makes us want to go out and get another one."
Broadway described Graham as "a player."
"He's something isn't he?" Broadway asked rhetorically. "He's a playmaker. We need about 82 more like him and we'll be okay."
Howard used a 15-play, 63-yard drive to close to within 14-10 at halftime as Parker Munoz connected on a 37-yard field goal with 30 seconds remaining in the half. Whatever momentum Howard had going into the locker room, it did not rollover into the second half. Howard's first offensive possession was a 3-and-out, which led to Graham, the playmaker, returning John Fleck's punt 77 yards to the Bison 6.
A 15-yard penalty moved the ball back to the 21, which led to a Zach Cimaglia 31-yard field goal. A&T began to put the game away as Howard's next possession was also disastrous. On a 2nd-and-22, A&T defensive end Tyree Hearn slammed into Howard quarterback Greg McGhee as McGhee tried to pass.
The hit led to the ball being popped up in the air. Junior linebacker D'Vonte Grant landed under the floater and returned it 40 yards for a 24-10 A&T lead.
"What's so amazing is, we're a pretty good defensive team despite being so undersized," Broadway said. "We're playing with 220-pound defensive ends. Our biggest inside guy is 260 pounds, so for those guys to hold up like they do, I'm proud of them."
A&T will need a strong defense against a resurgent Delaware State team. The Hornets improved to 2-1 in the MEAC with a win over S.C. State on Saturday. It will be homecoming for the Hornets as they host A&T this Saturday at 1 p.m.
"This is just one guy's opinion," Broadway said. "Howard is good. Bethune-Cookman is good. Delaware State is good. They may be three of the top teams in the league right now with the way they're playing. We're close to being able to play with some of those teams, but we're not quite good enough to win the close ones yet. Once we start doing that, we can be mentioned in that top of the line group."