Saturday, November 19, 2022

Gardner-Webb Defeats NC A&T, Secures Big South Title and First Ever FCS Playoff Berth

BOILING SPRINGS – Gardner-Webb and North Carolina A&T both came into the last week of the regular season with a perfect Big South conference record, setting the stage for a winner-take-all matchup for the conference’s autobid into the FCS playoffs.

Both defenses started the game strong, combining for two forced fumbles, three punts, and an interception. The offenses were only partially able to take advantage of the turnovers, though. After recovering a punt on the first play of the game, the Aggies went thirty-three yards in three plays to take an early lead on a twenty-three-yard pass from Jaylen Fowler to Zach Leslie. A fumble at the A&T ten-yard-line helped the Runnin’ Bulldogs get on the scoreboard with a short Jay Billingsley field goal.

A Gardner-Webb block of  NC A&T punt seemed to awaken everyone in the stands, including both teams' offenses, who combined for twenty-eight points in the second quarter. Gardner-Webb was finally able to find the end zone when Bailey Fisher hit Cutrell Haywood on a slant play and the graduate receiver raced twenty-three yards to give the Runnin’ Bulldogs their first lead of the game. Just when it looked like North Carolina A&T would seize the momentum for the day after Bhayshul Tuten broke free and rumbled for a sixty-one-yard score, the Runnin’ Bulldogs rattled off fourteen unanswered points to end the half. Jayden Brown scampered nineteen yards around the left side of the line for one score and linebacker Jamari Brown’s scoop-and-almost-score set up a two-yard Narii Gaither touchdown run.

The Runnin’ Bulldogs started the second half strong as well, forcing an Aggie punt and then extending their lead to seventeen with Narii Gaither’s second touchdown of the day. North Carolina A&T finally got on the scoreboard again late in the third quarter with Andrew Brown’s forty-yard field goal. By the time the third quarter ended, the home team held a two-score lead and was looking to add to their advantage. A fourth quarter Jayden Brown, his second of the day, closed the scoring and secured the victory for the Runnin’ Bulldogs.

With the win, Gardner-Webb (6-5, 5-0) secured their first conference title since 2003 and first FCS playoff bid ever. The Runnin’ Bulldogs will find out their opponent on Sunday’s selection show.