One missed block.
That’s all that stood in the way of North Carolina Central winning the MEAC championship outright and advancing to the ESPN Celebration Bowl.
On Oct. 3, the Eagles blew a 26-7 lead in the third quarter to find themselves trailing Bethune-Cookman 28-26 with 18 seconds left in the game. After having its drive stalled at the Wildcats 1-yard line, NCCU set up for a potential game-winning field goal. But a missed block on B-CU lineman Elliott Miller allowed him easy access to the backfield from the right side, and he blocked Nigel Macauley’s kick.
That will haunt the Eagles for a while.
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N.C. Central never lost again, winning its last seven games, including the regular-season finale over archrival N.C. A&T.
Still, Bethune-Cookman, NCCU and N.C. A&T ended up in a three-way tie for the conference title. A win by NCCU back on Oct. 3 would have made the difference.
While each school earned a trophy from the MEAC, only the Aggies are still practicing for another game.
B-CU’s No. 21-ranked Wildcats’ hopes for an at-large FCS playoff spot were dashed, and the Eagles were never ranked during the season.
“It’s not disappointing, but it is bittersweet,” said Eagles coach Jerry Mack, who is a candidate for the STATS FCS Coach of the Year award. “We feel that we are one, if not the best team in the MEAC. We finished the season strong, and we controlled what we could control, and we win the MEAC for the second straight season.”
The Celebration Bowl is Dec. 19 at noon at Atlanta’s Georgia Dome. N.C. A&T will meet the SWAC champion, which will be decided this Saturday in the SWAC Championship Game.
“That is big for us,” N.C. A&T coach Rod Broadway said. “That’s why we do this. It’s not under the circumstances we would have chosen (losing to NCCU), but we’re going.”
Mack has an undefeated record against Broadway (2-0), the only MEAC coach that can brag so. In his first head-coaching job, Mack is also the first NCCU football coach to win 15 games in two seasons.
This season is the coaching staff’s most impressive job to date.
With season-ending injuries to All-American cornerback/return specialist Mike Jones and wide receiver Khalil Stinson in the third game of the season, questions abounded over whether the team could recover.
Instead, the offense and defense finished among the MEAC’s top three in scoring and scoring defense. The defense didn’t allow a fourth-down conversion until the N.C. A&T game.
“For us as an organization, we have a great coach and he’s turning our program,” said senior safety C.J. Moore, who moved to third on the program’s all-time tackles list.
While the pre-game hype was on N.C. A&T running back Tarik Cohen, who led the league in rushing, NCCU freshman Dorrel McClain stole the show.
McClain racked up 167 yards against an Aggies rushing defense that was No. 1 in the FCS. He ended the regular season with 958 yards and eight touchdowns, and he is a candidate for the STATS FCS Freshman of the Year award.
Give some credit to second-year running backs coach Adrian Jones, the former head coach at Southern Durham.
“He (Dorrel) didn’t feel like he was getting the same respect that Tarik was getting in the conference,” Mack said. “I’m really excited about what we’ve got coming back.”
The Eagles theme was “Leave No Doubt.” They wanted to win the MEAC outright and leave no doubt who the champion was.
That didn’t happen, but there is no doubt where the program is headed.