N.C. A&T edges sloppy Jacksonville State in FCS Kickoff

By CRAIG HALEY

STATS FCS Senior Editor

(STATS) - North Carolina A&T is opening the 2018 season with a chip on its collective shoulder even after posting the only unbeaten record in the FCS last season.

The No. 14 Aggies made quite the opening statement with a 20-17 victory over No. 6 Jacksonville State in the fifth annual FCS Kickoff game Saturday night at the Cramton Bowl in Montgomery, Alabama.

In capturing Sam Washington's head coaching debut, the Aggies (1-0) ended the Gamecocks' 41-game regular-season winning streak against non-FBS opponents, which dated to 2013.

A year ago, North Carolina A&T finished 12-0 as the 2017 HBCU national champion, but there's always debate about how well the MEAC champion would compete in the FCS playoffs instead of going to the Celebration Bowl, where the Aggies defeated SWAC champion Grambling State.

It was hard to question the Aggies after they increased the longest winning streak in the FCS to 13.

"If you look at the history of HBCU's playing in these type of games against ranked teams, whether it is the playoffs or regular season, they haven't fared very well," Washington said. "Tonight we did feel like we were not only representing ourselves, but our conference and HBCUs. It was an important win."

The outcome was quite different for Jacksonville State (0-1), which was less than three hours from its Alabama campus. The four-time defending Ohio Valley Conference champ has self-destructed and disappointed in recent playoffs, and it did even more of that in a weird opener. The Gamecocks committed 14 penalties for 149 yards, lost four turnovers and came up empty on two field goal attempts in the fourth quarter.

Their final miscue occurred late inside North Carolina A&T's red zone. Quarterback Zerrick Cooper completed five straight passes to get Jacksonville State to the Aggies' 18, but defensive end Darryl Johnson Jr. stripped Cooper in the backfield, and Antoine Wilder fell on the ball with 17 seconds left in the game.

The play cemented North Carolina A&T's 48th straight win after holding a halftime lead. Saturday night's was 7-3 in a first half dominated by defense and penalties.

The third quarter turned wild, however, when both teams scored two touchdowns in a four-minute span. Cooper, a Clemson transfer who had 320 passing yards, connected with Daniel Byrd for a 49-yard score and Josh Pearson for a 40-yarder, but in between the Aggies' Malik Wilson returned a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown.

Clinging to the 17-14 lead, the Gamecocks tried to surprise N.C. A&T with an onside kick, but they impeded an Aggies player as he tried to field the ball. The 15-yard penalty placed the ball at the JSU 31 and the Aggies turned the golden opportunity into Lamar Raynard's second touchdown pass, a 4-yarder to Elijah Bell with 2:36 left. Noel Ruiz missed the extra point, keeping the lead 20-17.

"If I had to do that (kickoff) over again, I'd sky kick it deep," Jacksonville State coach John Grass said. "That was a huge deal."

In the fourth quarter, Gamecocks kicker Cade Stinnett missed a 51-yard field goal attempt on the first play and later had a 41-yard attempt blocked by Kiaundric Richardson with 4:12 left. Their next possession ended near midfield when Pearson fumbled the ball on a catch-and-run. Aggies defensive back Richie Kittle recovered it at the 2:14 mark.

Despite the win, N.C. A&T was outgained 403-148, more benefitting from Jacksonville State's mistakes. Raynard, the 2017 MEAC offensive player of the year, also threw a 24-yard TD to wide receiver Zachary Leslie while improving to 27-0 as a starter in his four-year career.

Updated August 26, 2018

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