GREENSBORO — They came home, at last, a little beat up after back-to-back road trips that ended in upset victories.
There was no upset Saturday night.
No. 5/6 N.C. A&T played its home opener without three starting offensive linemen, and still the Aggies rediscovered their running game and clobbered Gardner-Webb 45-6 at BB&T Stadium.
Senior running back Marquell Cartwright rushed for 119 yards on 15 carries, and his backup, speedy sophomore Jah-Maine Martin added eight carries for 93 yards and two touchdowns, scoring on runs of 28 and 42 yards as A&T showed off its big-play ability.
In all, the Aggies (3-0) finished with 44 carries for 283 rushing yards. They came in averaging 33 carries for 59.5 yards in their first two games.
Not on this night. Simply put, they ran over the Runnin’ Bulldogs (1-1), the program they beat 45-3 last year in Boiling Springs to start their current 15-game winning streak, the longest in the nation.
“It’s fun, man. The winning streak is fun,” Cartwright said. “But it’s also a standard we have around here. We expect nothing but wins. We expect to dominate each game, one at a time.”
A&T dominated this one, almost from the moment they ran out of the tunnel and onto the field through clouds of machine-generated smoke.
But not everybody ran. A handful of Aggies brought up the rear, wearing game jerseys and shorts. No helmets. No pads.
Among them were starting left tackle Marcus Pettiford, left guard Macquel Hardy and right guard Micah Shaw, who missed his second straight game, still wearing a walking boot on his left leg.
It’s a new offensive line to begin with; Pettiford is the only returning starter from last season’s 12-0 team.
And in the home opener, to make the offensive line work, the two healthy starters moved. Dontae Keys shifted from right to left tackle, and center Malik Johnson moved to right guard.
Right tackle Breonte Matthews, left guard Sylvester Smith and center Dacquari Wilson filled the remaining gaps.
“Man, it was a big deal for the second-string guys on the (offensive) line to come in and play the way they played,” Cartwright said. “We’ve got three guys down right now, and for those other guys to get lanes open for us, to help us get the yardage we got tonight, to help all our backs get some good runs, that’s a big deal for us.”
It is a big deal. Because A&T is at its best when it stops the run on defense — the Aggies allowed just 14 yards on 22 carries — and runs the ball effectively on offense.
“When we can run the ball, it opens up the rest of the offense,” Cartwright said. “It lets us do more things. We want to stay consistent, running and passing the ball.”
Cartwright, a power runner, came into the game averaging just 2.9 yards on 43 carries through the Aggies first two games at Jacksonville State and East Carolina. He averaged 7.9 on Saturday, looking more like the back who rolled up 1,190 yards last year.
And the running game did open the field for quarterback Lamar Raynard, who finished 14-of-24 passing for 125 yards, and his receivers, especially Ron Hunt, the junior from Southern Guilford. Hunt, who had a couple of key drops in the first two games, caught everything thrown his way Saturday, finishing with a team-high seven catches for 90 yards.
Now the Aggies get a week off before a home game against Morgan State on Sept. 22.
“We’ve got some time, now,” Cartwright said. “We’ve got some time to get guys back and re-establish what we need to do. We can watch some film (on ourselves), get some guys in the training room to get healthy for the conference (schedule) coming up.”
NOTES: Junior running back Kashon Baker, who has taken over the primary punt returner’s role after the graduation of All-America Khris Gardin, scored on a 78-yard return early in the second quarter to push A&T’s lead to 14-3. … Baker also had four carries for 20 yards in the fourth quarter, scoring the final TD on a 1-yard run. … Gardner-Webb’s two best drives both ended in field goals, as rookie Tre Jackson converted from 25 and 40 yards. … A&T sacked G-W freshman quarterback Jordan Smith four times. The nimble freshman was 14-of-29 passing for 192 yards with an interception. On the turnover, he was hit as he threw and the ball floated to A&T linebacker Antoine Wilder. Four plays later, A&T scored when Raynard hit fullback William Hollingsworth out of the backfield for a 5-yard TD that made the score 24-6 and started the second-half rout. … A&T came in as the most penalized FCS team in the nation with 24 penalties in two games. The Aggies had just three penalties for 35 yards Saturday.