Commentary: N.C. A&T deserves credit, despite snickers from elite FCS fans
FARGO — It's easy for Division I Football Championship Subdivision fans and media in Fargo or Harrisonburg, Va., to dismiss North Carolina A&T's 20-17 victory over Jacksonville State last weekend as an unwatchable clunker between two inferior teams — "inferior" defined as "undeserved of being mentioned in the same breath as championship-level programs like North Dakota State and James Madison" — but doing so would be horribly disrespectful.
To the Aggies, anyway.
Jacksonville State, meh, it gets what it deserves. The Gamecocks, known most years for spectacular flame-outs in the playoffs despite receiving high seeds, went into the game with a No. 6 ranking and their usual swagger. They exited the Cramton Bowl in Montgomery,
Ala., losers in the nationally televised FCS Kickoff Classic in which they committed 14 penalties and four turnovers.
Jacksonville State was the physically superior team — it outgained the Aggies in total yards 403 to 148 — but was ill-prepared and undisciplined. Stop me if you've heard this record before.
Bison and Dukes fans, though, would be wise to not be hating on the Aggies. There are just too many good angles to enjoy with this historically black college (abbreviated as HBCU, the last letter standing for "university") from Greensboro, N.C.
They start with the head coach, Sam Washington, who at 58 years old was on the sidelines for the first time as a head coach. He replaced legendary A&T coach Rod Broadway after spending a career as a well-traveled assistant at mostly HBCU schools in either the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference or the Southwestern Athletic Conference. Washington is a former player at Mississippi Valley State, a member of the SWAC.
So not only was the victory important to Washington because it was his first — he choked up in the locker room after the game while speaking to his team — he also viewed the Aggies as representing all HBCUs.
"If you look at the history of HBCUs playing in these types of games against ranked teams, whether it is the playoffs or regular season, they haven't fared very well," Washington said after A&T secured the victory with a strip-sack with 18 seconds left after Jacksonville State moved to the Aggies' 18-yard line. "Tonight we did feel like we were not only representing ourselves but our conference and HBCUs. It was an important win."
The A&T athletic department website referred to the game as "one of the most significant wins in school history and in HBCU football history."
That might be underselling the program Broadway and now Washington have built. Yes, a fine A&T team went quietly in the 2016 FCS playoffs, losing to a short-handed Richmond team 39-10 in the first round after getting an at-large bid. And it's true HBCUs historically struggle against top-flight FCS teams.
But the loss to Richmond in December 2016 was A&T's last. Aggies went 12-0 in 2017, beating FBS Charlotte 35-31 early in the season, their second victory over an FBS opponent in as many years (they beat Kent State in '16). It was A&T's first perfect season since 1943. A&T entered the Jacksonville State game ranked No. 14 in the nation with the longest FCS winning streak in the nation, which drew some snickers from more elite areas of FCS.
A&T didn't participate in the FCS playoffs last year because the MEAC and the SWAC require their champions to play in the Celebration Bowl to determine the HBCU national champion. Other league teams can accept at-large playoff bids.
The Aggies ranked 10th in home attendance in FCS in 2017, averaging almost 16,000 fans per game.
There is some recent success here, to go with history and pride. Just because a program is undermanned and underfunded, relatively speaking, it doesn't mean it can't play the game the right way.
That doesn't mean the victory over Jacksonville State was artful. The Aggies rushed for just 37 yards and passed for 111, while committing 10 penalties for 91 yards. But quarterback Lamar Raynard, a lanky 6-foot-4 and 195 pounds, threw two touchdown passes, including the go-ahead score with 2:36 to play in the third quarter.
"All wins are good wins, but it wasn't pretty," Washington said on the MEAC conference call this week. "We made entirely too many mistakes. One thing that stands out is the number of penalties we had and I was very disappointed in that. We had three dead ball penalties and that's selfish play."
The Aggies will have to get cleaned up this week. They travel to FBS East Carolina on Saturday, a team that Washington describes as "bigger, faster and stronger" than A&T.
It might be another measuring stick to see just where the Aggies belong in the FCS landscape. A year ago, then-defending national champion and 2017 runner-up James Madison opened the season with a 34-14 walloping of East Carolina.
"I have seen the tape. I thought (the Dukes) were able to match up man for man," Washington said. "That's very difficult to do for an FCS team to match up with an FBS team. But they were able to do it. James Madison has a lot of talent and they have a lot of depth. I thought they matched up well with them."
A website that covers HBCU sports suggested this week that A&T might be the best team in FCS after its win over Jacksonville State. That's a stretch. But the Aggies should also not be so easily disregarded as a legitimate FCS program, as appears to be happening in Fargo and Harrisonburg.