Football keeps playoff hopes alive with Senior Day win

On Saturday, the University of Rhode Island football team defeated North Carolina A&T in their final home contest of the year, 31-24.

This was the inaugural meeting between these two teams, as North Carolina had just moved into the Coastal Athletic Association this past year. Before the game, URI honored their 15 seniors for their careers playing for the Rams.

The Rams opened up with a bang on a four-play, 56-yard drive, ending with a pass over the middle from seventh-year quarterback Kasim Hill to fifth-year wide receiver Kahtero Summers on a slant route, who cut past the defender into open space for an easy score. Rhode Island jumped out to a 7-0 lead with 13:20 remaining.

After punts from both teams, North Carolina was deep in their own territory, starting their second drive from the 3-yard line. After three penalties on URI’s defense, the Aggies managed to move up to their 40-yard line. From there, first-year quarterback Eli Brickhandler completed a pass while rolling out of the pocket to second-year wide receiver Amonte Jones on the right sideline, who took it for a 47-yard gain to the URI 12-yard line. North Carolina ended the drive with a 7-yard touchdown on another run from Brickhandler, as North Carolina tied the game at 7-7 with 5:06 remaining in the first quarter.

The Aggies got the ball on their own 41-yard line after URI was forced to punt for their second drive in a row. The Aggies drove into URI territory after a botched snap was salvaged by Brickhandler, who turned it into a 14-yard rush for a first down. From URI’s 3-yard line, second-year linebacker Declan Williams came charging through the offensive line to make a clutch sack, knocking the Aggies back eight yards and limiting them to a field goal on the drive. With 14:16 remaining in the half, North Carolina took a 10-7 lead.

North Carolina would have the ball again after taking over on downs, stopping a 4th & 3 attempt on their 16-yard line with 10:36 left to play in the first half. On third down, Brickhandler once again managed to sneak away from URI’s defense and earn a 25-yard gain running down the left sideline before scurrying out of bounds at the North Carolina 38-yard line. However, URI thwarted the Aggies’ momentum after a shared sack by fourth-year defensive lineman Jasyn Andrews and second-year linebacker A.J. Pena on 3rd & 6.

On URI’s following drive, Hill stepped up in the pocket while being dragged down by a defender and found Summers right at the center logo on the 50-yard line to escape the sack. On the following play, fifth-year running back Ja’Den McKenzie exploded to the right hash line on a run up the middle. He thrusted the ball over the goal line with two defenders dragging him down for the touchdown, and the Rams took back the lead at 14-10 with 4:13 remaining in the first half.

Shortly after, the Rams would get the ball back on their 49-yard line after the Aggies failed a fake punt attempt. The Rams found themselves at 3rd & 4 from the 24-yard line, and the North Carolina defensive line stuffed a run by Gabe Sloat up the middle for no gain. With the clock winding down, the Rams settled for a field goal by Ty Groff to end the half. The Rams were up 17-10 going into halftime.

In a slow start to the second half, both teams traded punts back and forth for three straight possessions.

North Carolina started with advantageous field position from the URI 37-yard line after picking off a pass from Hill. The Rams managed to hold the Aggies in place, forcing the Aggies to attempt a 51-yard field goal. Third-year placekicker Owen Daffer’s attempt fell short and the Rams took over from their 41-yard line.

URI continued to hammer away with their run game, marching down to the 30-yard line. That’s when McKenzie broke free, barrelling through the Aggie’s offensive line and breaking free to the right side for his second touchdown. The Rams held a commanding 24-10 lead with 0:38 remaining in the third quarter.

Needing a touchdown on their following drive, the Aggies elected to go for it in a 4th and 2 situation. Brickhandler took the snap and was immediately swarmed by Rhode Island defenders; he scrambled out of the pocket and heaved a ball toward second-year Ger-Cari Caldwell off his back foot, who caught the ball near the endzone for the first down. On a run play up the middle, second-year running back Kenji Christian found his hole and pushed into the endzone for the touchdown to conclude the 12-play, 75-yard drive. North Carolina still trailed 24-17 with 9:13 left to play.

The Aggies got the ball back with premier field position after recovering a fumble by Hill, starting from the URI 27-yard line. Brickhandler used his legs to create opportunity again, faking a pitch to the tight end and slipping by Rhode Island’s offensive line, scoring a 14-yard touchdown. North Carolina tied it 24-24 with 6:15 remaining.

Rhody began their next drive, hoping to stop the brewing comeback story. On the first play, McKenzie blazed up the middle for a 27-yard gain and followed it with another 25-yard run to the outside. From the 4-yard line, McKenzie capped off his electric drive with another touchdown, slipping through the opposing defensive line unscathed. Rhode Island stopped the bleeding and had a 31-24 lead with 2:55 remaining.

In their final drive of the game, North Carolina had pushed to the Rhode Island 48-yard line. It seemed that the game was on its way to overtime until fifth-year Brent Jackson poked out a fumble from the Aggie ball carrier, which was recovered by third-year Malachi Burby at the URI 27 with 1:15 left to play to seal the win for the Rams.

The Rams secured their fourth straight season with a winning record with this win.

“It was a great victory,” URI Head Coach Jim Flemming said after the win. “It was six wins; we are a winning football program in 2023.”

McKenzie finished the game with a phenomenal stat line of 233 yards, his single-game career high and third most in program history. He also finished with three touchdowns after a four-touchdown performance in their game against New Hampshire.

“Glad we got the win,” McKenzie said after the game. “It was senior day, so we had to go out with a bang.”

Rhode Island ends its season on the road Saturday against Towson, with kickoff set for 1 p.m. Fans can tune into the game on FloSports.