Solomon Crenshaw Jr.
For The Birmingham Times
Dizzy Dean said it ain’t bragging if you can do it.
Saturday at the 77th McDonald’s Magic City Classic presented by Coca-Cola, Nathaniel Dell did it. The freshman from Daytona Beach, Florida, nearly set a school single-game receiving record as he helped Alabama Agriculture & Mechanical to a 27-10 victory over rival Alabama State at Birmingham’s Legion Field.
An announced crowd of 65,906 saw Dell make six catches for 204 yards and two touchdowns as the Bulldogs outscored the Hornets 20-3 after intermission. His performance was just 160 yards shy of the school record, set in 1989 when Barry Wagner had a 370-yard receiving day against Clark Atlanta.
And Dell did it in just his third college game as he is coming off a hip pointer earlier this season.
“I feel like every time I touch the ball, I can take it to the house,” he said after the game. “I’m ‘seven-eleven’ – always open. That’s confidence. I’ve been like this since I was 6 years old. I feel like anybody who steps in front of me, they can’t do nothing with me.”
Teammate Dylan Hamilton concurred.
“We go at it every day in one-on-ones,” the senior safety said, “and he’s always open.”
The defense of the Bulldogs (4-3 overall, 3-2 in the Southwest Athletic Conference) played a role in the victory as well. Senior outside linebacker Yurik Bethune said he and his mates simply tried to get physical.
“That was our only goal,” he said, “playing in that backfield.”
A&M amassed three sacks and eight tackles for loss in the game.
“We had a simple game plan,” said Hamilton, the defensive player of the game. “We knew they couldn’t really drive the ball since they only had that one touchdown in the first half off of (the Bulldogs’) shanked punt. We just believed at halftime that if they don’t score, they don’t win. We held them to a field goal and that was the game.”
First-year A&M coach Connell Maynard said he and his squad knew they underachieved in the first half. Neither team scored in the first quarter and each had a TD in the second.
Quarterback Aqeel Glass finished 17 of 30 for 322 yards and three touchdowns.
“It all starts up front for me,” the sophomore signal-caller said. “The O-line played their butts off only giving up one sack and they didn’t really give it up. That was on me.
“Everybody just made the game easy,” he continued. “When you’ve got this guy (Dell) to throw the ball to … he takes a 5-yard pass and takes it 70 yards.”
Actually, that was an 81-yard scoring play. State had answered Jordan Bentley’s 57-yard touchdown run with Hunter Hanson’s 39-yard field goal.
On the ensuing drive, Glass rolled right and three left to Dell, who followed his blocks to the sideline and then to the end zone.
Maynard noted that Dell would have come closer to the record if a deep pass to him in the second half not bounced off his helmet. Glass said his underthrew his receiver on that play.
ASU coach Donald Hill-Eley is now 1-1 in the Classic, winning last year when he still wore the interim tag. He said he can’t beat his team up but must instead build his team up.
The Hornets (2-5, 1-2 in the SWAC) are still in contention for a league championship, but they’ll need help.
“I know they’re down, I know they’re hurt. I’m hurt,” he said. “The key now is just circling the wagons and finding ways to fix it.”
Shoring up the passing defense is key, but Hill-Eley knows the Calvary isn’t coming.
“To go out and play the way we played, nobody’s happy with that,” he said. “That was a bad performance, especially with everything we had at stake. We’ve got to find a way to coach it better and fix it.”
The day started on a sour note for the Hornet coaches and players as they pulled on the Legion Field parking lot. Starting quarterback KHA’Darris Davis received a text that his grandmother had passed away.
“It’s a very unfortunate situation for him and his family but I still thought we’d find a way to get through it,” Hill-Eley said.
Davis, a redshirt sophomore out of Bessemer City High, had 53 yards on 12 carries and completed 21 of 37 passes for 181 yards and an interception.
Alabama A&M travels to Arkansas Pine Bluff Saturday while Alabama State hosts Texas Southern.