GREENSBORO - When North Carolina A&T defeated S.C. State 17-7 Saturday afternoon at Aggie Stadium, it did not deliver A&T a MEAC football championship. But for the many fans at the stadium and following the game online, it sure felt pretty close.
A&T's win guaranteed the Aggies (6-4, 4-3 MEAC) their first winning season since 2003. That happens to be the last time the Aggies won the MEAC title. After winning the '03 title, the A&T program went through numerous humbling and difficult situations. Whether it was the 27-game losing streak or the tragic death of offensive lineman Chad Wiley, to paraphrase Langston Hughes, life ain't been no crystal stair.
But the program seems to be coming out of its funk as evidenced by its Saturday s victory over a team, S.C. State, it defeated for the first time in 12 years. It made for a glorious senior day for the 18 Aggies playing their final football game at Aggie Stadium.
"It is so gratifying to see our guys leave this way," said A&T coach Rod Broadway about his seniors. "I think we've only loss two home games in two years since we've been here. That's change. That's a positive change around here. They’ve earned everything they’ve gotten. No one has given us anything."
Indeed, it was an inspiring effort by the Aggies. The game started with a 96-yard kickoff return by S.C. State's Jakar Hamilton. A&T, which boast the second-ranked defense in the nation, used its talented defense to keep the Bulldogs from scoring any further. The Aggies special teams also played a role in keeping the game in reach until the Aggies were able to score.
Junior D'Vonte Graham blocked two first-half Bulldog field goal attempts in the first half. The Aggies also had their opportunities to score, but the Bulldogs (4-6, 3-4 MEAC) were just as resilient as A&T over the first 2 ½ quarters. A&T quarterback Kwashaun Quick was looking to score from the Bulldogs 5-yard line in the first quarter, but was hit at the 1 and fumbled the ball into the end zone for a Bulldogs touchback. The Aggies also missed a first-quarter field goal and trailed 7-0 at the half.
"They punched and we countered punched the whole game," said Graham. "Eventually, we just wore them down."
The wearing down process materialized over a 16-second time period in the fourth quarter. A&T took its first lead of the game with a little less than eight minutes remaining in the game. That is when Ricky Lewis went off-tackle, ran through tackles and sprinted to the end zone for a 34-yard touchdown run to give A&T a 10-7 lead. Seconds later, Bulldogs quarterback Richard Cue rolled to his right and tossed the ball to receiver Caleb Davis.
Davis fumbled the ball, but did not go after because he thought it was an incomplete pass. Graham, the Aggies cornerback, saw it differently. He picked up the ball and ran 10 yards into the end zone. The play was ruled a backwards lateral, and thus the fumble recovery gave the Aggies outstanding defense a 10-point cushion with 7:38 remaining in the game.
"It's just instinct really," said Graham about the play that sealed the win for A&T. "Whenever you see a bubble screen or any type of play behind the line of scrimmage, we practice if the ball hits the ground, pick it up. I mean what does it hurt us if the play is blown dead? I just scooped it up. Why not try to score?"
Graham and the Aggies defense continued its dominance. A&T has not allowed an offensive touchdown in 14 quarters. They have held their last three opponents to less than 300 yards of offense.
"I know it has been a long time since someone has scored a touchdown on our defense, but I didn't want them to score at all," said Graham about his two blocked field goals and fumble recovery. "I take pride in stopping a team from scoring."
On the offensive end, the Aggies rushed for 250 yards led by senior Mike Mayhew's 141 yards. Lewis added 82 yards and a touchdown on the ground. S.C. State will endure its first losing season under 11-year head coach Buddy Pough. Pough also lost to the Aggies for the first time in 11 games. The Aggies will close out the 2012 season against archrival N.C. Central in Durham on Nov. 17 at 2 p.m. A win will go even further in helping the Aggies put the past nine years behind them.
"We're going to prepare for them like any other game," said A&T quarterback Lewis Kindle. "It will mean a lot to the program if we could get to 7-4. To get up for a rivalry game shouldn't be hard for any of us."