ORANGEBURG, S.C. — N.C. A&T needed a spark.
The first quarter was over. The second quarter was slipping away. The Aggies trailed 10-0, and their whole season was at stake, evaporating into the November sun before their very eyes.
A&T’s defense provided the spark, scoring the first points — the decisive points, as it turned out — on the way to a 22-20 victory over South Carolina State at Oliver Dawson Stadium.
And so the Aggies (4-1 MEAC, 6-2) control their own destiny and can win their way into a third consecutive Celebration Bowl, while S.C. State (3-2, 5-3) falls out of first place in the conference.
“They played,” A&T coach Sam Washington said, “with the confidence of a champion.”
The confidence came from the defense. Michael Rivers’ punt pinned the Bulldogs deep in their own territory. Defensive tackle Kadarius Kendrick sacked Tyrece Nick for a 10-yard loss.
And then linebacker Kyin Howard, a sophomore from Eastern Guilford and A&T’s leading tackler, chased town Nick in the end zone.
“We needed that one. We didn’t have any energy at all,” Howard said. “Somebody had to do something, and I just took off running after (Nick). I had to go make a play. …
“Those two quarterbacks are hard to defend, but we had to keep them in front of us, make sure we didn’t let them get outside. They’re both good quarterbacks. That No. 3 (Nick) is really good.”
The safety broke the ice for A&T, which scored on its last two drives of the first half to take a 16-10 lead.
The Aggies adjusted to South Carolina State’s run-stopping defense aimed at star tailback Jah-Maine Martin. Quarterback Kylil Carter passed for 267 yards, and he kept the ball for a team-high 19 carries and 73 yards.
“My guys made plays for me,” Carter said. “My offensive line made plays to get me yards. My running back made plays. My receivers made plays on the outside and over the middle. …
“South Carolina State is a good, physical football team, and to come out with a win in their house is a great feeling.”
A&T sealed it in the second half, with two big plays in particular.
Cornerback Amir McNeill intercepted an overthrown pass in the fourth quarter at the 10-yard line to stop a potential scoring drive.
And on A&T’s last possession, after the defense forced a three-and-out, the Aggies killed the last 2:51 off the clock. On third-and-5, Carter hit wide receiver Elijah Bell on a crossing route for an 11-yard gain. The first down doomed S.C. State.
“We decided to take what they gave us,” Washington said. “We waited to see how many they put in the box (to stop the run) … We had the option to check out of the play. We got what we were looking for, a little drag route for Bell.”
And with that play, the Aggies won the biggest game of the year so far.
Next up is a trip to woeful Morgan State (1-5, 1-8). That’s a classic trap game, with tough opponents Bethune-Cookman and N.C. Central afterward to wrap up the season in Greensboro.
“We’re not going to change anything about our approach,” Washington said. “We’re going to do what we do. There are some things we need to get fixed if we want to play for a championship. We’ve got a very good Bethune-Cookman team and a much improved N.C. Central team ahead of us to play.”
And a very good South Carolina State team in the rearview mirror.