GREENSBORO — From the beginning, when Sam Washington arrived at N.C. A&T in 2011 as the defensive coordinator and associate head coach on Rod Broadway’s staff, there were two goals.
No. 1, win on Homecoming. And No. 2, beat N.C. Central.
The Aggies haven’t lost a Homecoming game since, a streak of nine victories in a row.
Beating Central hasn’t been quite as easy. A&T is 5-3 against its rival during that stretch, including a 45-0 blowout victory in Durham last season in Washington’s first year as a head coach.
The No. 24 Aggies host Central at BB&T Field on Saturday in a game that means everything for A&T.
With a victory, A&T would lock up at least a share of the MEAC championship, and the Aggies (5-2 MEAC, 7-3) hold a head-to-head tiebreaker with South Carolina State (5-2, 7-3).
“I don’t have to get our guys hyped up. They know,” Washington said. “They know exactly what this game means. And not just because it’s Central. It’s also the ticket to Atlanta.
“We control our own destiny. The Celebration Bowl is the ultimate goal. That’s why we started playing this game in the summer, started preparing to get back to Atlanta. And here is the opportunity we’ve presented to ourselves. It’s very important we go ahead and finish the deal.”
For Central, it’s a chance to ruin their rival’s season.
A&T wins every conceivable MEAC tiebreaker scenario. But an A&T loss would open the door for S.C. State, if the Bulldogs could win their season finale at Norfolk State (4-3, 5-6).
An A&T loss would also almost certainly knock the Aggies out of the national rankings. And it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which the No. 3 MEAC team — Florida A&M, although on NCAA probation and banned from the postseason, is still 9-1 — would get an at-large berth in the FCS playoffs.
“(The rivalry) makes Central very dangerous,” Washington said. “And we’re not going to fall into that trap again of looking at records.”
It can go beyond just records.
The last time these teams played in Greensboro, there was an altercation at midfield during pregame warmups. Three A&T starters were flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct, and Central’s best defensive back was ejected before the opening kickoff.
That’s the kind of stuff that concerns A&T offensive tackle Dontae Keys, a redshirt junior set to play against Central for the first time. Keys was a backup his first season and didn’t get on the field, and he missed last year’s game with an illness.
Central comes in with 114 penalties this season, the most among the nation’s 124 FCS teams.
“It’s a discipline thing that Coach Wash talks about a lot,” Keys said. “We’ve been focusing on that. We have to make a conscious decision to be the bigger person in situations where they show a lack of discipline. We have to remain disciplined and remember why we’re there. We’re there to play a football game and move on to the next level.”