ATLANTA – The win over Appalachian State showed that in three short years, the North Carolina A&T football team had gone from being recognized as one of the country’s worst teams to a program to be reckoned with in 2013.
The win over Elon gave the Aggies a few bragging rights in the Triad, while the Howard win got the Aggies to 1-0 in the MEAC. But a win over head coach Buddy Pough’s S.C. State Bulldogs was going to be the signature win over an elite team in the MEAC, a team with four conference titles in 10 years.
It didn’t quite happen. A few miscues on special teams and a solid performance from Bulldogs quarterback Richard Cue led S.C. State to a 29-24 win over the upstart Aggies in the Atlanta Football Classic at the Georgia Dome on Saturday.
“I don’t think there is a lot of difference between us and the top teams in this league,” said A&T head coach Rod Broadway. “We’re obviously still not quite good enough because we weren’t able to win today. The gap has narrowed significantly. We’re going to keep knocking on that freaking door until we get through it.”
The Aggies (3-1, 1-1 MEAC) were banging pretty hard midway through the third quarter. Senior running back Ricky Lewis went off tackle on the left side for a 13-yard touchdown run that gave A&T a 17-14 lead.
But junior kicker Jose Garcia-Camacho kicked the ensuing kickoff out of bounds. The Bulldogs took over at their own 35-yard line, and harmlessly went three-and-out. But what didn’t seem like a huge deal at the time, turned out to be. Thanks to the good field position set up by the out-of-bounds kickoff, Nick Belcher’s 45-yard punt pinned the Aggies inside their own 20.
Three A&T plays and minus seven yards later, the Aggies were forced to punt from their own end zone. A high snap helped S.C. State’s Austin Smith block Dominic Frescura’s punt out of the back of the end zone for a safety. The Bulldogs then used the good field position from the free kick to take the lead for good. Belcher closed out a nine-play, 27-yard drive with a 49-yard field goal that gave the Bulldogs a 19-17 lead with 36 seconds remaining in the third quarter.
“We just can’t give up points like that in the kicking the game especially when you’re in the position we’re in,” said Broadway, who saw the Aggies play their second straight game without injured kicker Cody Jones. “If we even play evenly in the kicking game, we’ve got a chance. But to give up negative plays in the kicking, and to then create extra points because you give the ball back to them is a killer.”
A&T’s field position problems worsened when kick returner Tony McRae decided to return the ensuing kickoff despite being seven yards deep into his own end zone. It resulted in just a 14-yard return. The Aggies weren’t able to dig themselves out, which eventually led to the Bulldogs taking over at their own 35. On the first play of the drive, Cue Richardson found Tyler McDonald on a 5-yard out pattern. Two missed tackles and 60 yards later, McDonald had a 65-yard touchdown reception and the Bulldogs had a 26-17 lead.
Belcher added another field goal to push the lead to 12 before Atlanta native and Aggies quarterback Lewis Kindle led the Aggies on a 10-play, 76-drive that ended on a 25-yard touchdown reception to Desmond Lawrence as A&T cut S.C. State’s lead to 29-24. Kindle accounted for every yard on the drive, including eight yards rushing.
“It was nice for me to come back home and play in front of my family,” said Kindle. “A lot of them had not seen me play since I was small. Of course when you get down here it’s about business, so it is hard to enjoy family. But it was nice to play in front of them.”
Kindle had a chance to make it a memorable homecoming. The Aggies had the ball 1st-and-10 at the SCSU 32 with 1:32 remaining in the game. But Kindle was sacked on first down, saw one of his passes slip through the fingertips of Lawrence and incompletions to Torrian Warren and Darren Bullock closed out the game.
Freshman running back Tarik Cohen, who rushed for 62 yards on eight carries, was named the Aggies MVP for the AFC. Richardson was S.C. State’s MVP as threw for 236 yards and two touchdowns to help the Bulldogs improve to 4-2 overall and 2-0 in the MEAC.
“South Carolina State has been a force in this league for a long time,” said Broadway. “I have always respected how they do things. In order to win a championship in this league, you’ve got to be able to beat those guys. They’ve won them, they know how to win them and they’ve got a chance to compete for another one this year. But we’re closing the gap. We’re getting to the point where we can play with the top teams in this league. We just have to figure out how to win some of these close ballgames.”
The Aggies return to action next week when they travel to Hampton, Va., to face the Hampton Pirates at 2 p.m.