With every loss there is a lesson, and sometimes there is a lesson in watching another team’s win.
While the North Carolina Central football team was traveling up I-85, returning from Atlanta after their 40-24 loss to Prairie View A&M, their rivals from Greensboro were pulling off an upset in Greenville. North Carolina A&T rolled into Dowdy Ficklen Stadium and shocked ECU, 28-23, Sunday afternoon, a day after the game was originally scheduled to be played.
While that win by the Aggies may have been just a blip on the radar nationally, it was a big deal in the talk of North Carolina for 24 hours. As the Eagles (0-1) head into their home opener at 6 p.m. Saturday against Division II opponent Saint Augustine’s (0-1), head coach Granville Eastman hopes Sunday’s win by their most heated rivals sent a message throughout his own locker room: Any given day a team can be beaten.
Since their first season out of the CIAA (2007), NCCU is 10-2 against former conference foes. The Eagles haven’t had any problems with the Falcons, leading the all-time series 29-2-1, owning a five-game winning streak. NCCU has outscored SAU 137-7 in their last two meetings (2015, 2016). On paper this looks like a tune up game for the Eagles before they start conference play at South Carolina State next week, but it’s that mindset that could get NCCU in trouble.
“We have to make sure that we start fast, that we’re not flat,” Eastman said. “We don’t want to give them any kind of momentum or any kind of hope early. The difference between Division II, FBC, FCS, you can throw that out the window.”
Starting flat is exactly what the Eagles did in their opener against Prairie View, falling behind 20-0 before picking up a first down. Eastman said the game film from the opener should be enough to humble his guys. And even if they did somehow still overlook the Falcons, watching their rivals pull off a big upset hours later should be enough of a wake-up call.
“I’m tired of saying it, but congratulations to (A&T) on another great win because it represents the conference well,” Eastman said. “I think our young men are well aware of the fact that it’s any given Saturday now and anything can happen if you don’t take care of your business. I don’t believe that mentality will be lost to us at all.”
The Aggies collected $300,000 from the Pirates in the guaranteed game. According to the NCCU Athletics Department, the Eagles will pay the Falcons $23,000 to make the 25-mile trip to Durham.
Eastman stressed that A&T’s win over ECU will be used as a teaching point this week. Even though the last two games versus SAU haven’t been close, the Falcons are a local team, and the interim coach feels like the familiarity between players cancels out having an advantage because they are a division higher.
“I’m sure they have some former high school teammates that are on our team and vice versa, so when you get in a situation where everyone knows everybody there’s not a fear factor, there’s not an intimidation factor,” Eastman said. “That kind of goes out the window.”
According to a report by the Winston-Salem Journal after CIAA Media Day this summer, SAU has 17 football scholarships to hand out to a roster of 64 players. FCS schools like NCCU can typically have 63 full scholarships for football teams.
On paper that gives the Eagles a huge advantage, but the plan is still to prepare like they do for every opponent. It’s easy for the coaches to preach that message, but someone in the locker room has to drill it into the mind of his teammates. Redshirt sophomore wide receiver Daeshawn Stephens has no problems handling that responsibility this week.
“As a leader of the team I make sure I talk to my guys a lot because it’s easy for people to not prepare as hard just because they feel like it can be an easy win,” Stephens said. “Coming up in a football family I was raised not to take anyone lightly, so we just prepare like we’re in a championship game every week.”
WELCOME TO THE COACHING WORLD
Eastman, the interim head coach who also serves as the defensive coordinator, said it didn’t take long for him to have his welcome to coaching moment against PVAM.
Leading up to his first game as a head coach, Eastman wasn’t sure when the reality would hit him. Turns out it hit right around the time the Panthers got on the scoreboard for the second time.
“When we got down 14-0,” Eastman said. “Defensive-wise, I was thinking what were they doing to us at that point and time. Just trying to figure out answers on how we were going to slow them down. Offensively, I was just communicating with (offensive coordinator) T.C. Taylor about how we were going to extend drives and keep our defense off the field.”
CALDWELL’S SORE ARM?
Sophomore quarterback Chauncey Caldwell had a career-high 42 pass attempts versus PVAM. Last season as a true freshman his season-high attempts was 32 versus Bethune-Cookman. Known more for his legs early last season, Eastman credits Caldwell’s growth in the passing game with the career-high attempts on Sunday.
“He’s definitely gotten better coming out of the spring, without question,” Eastman said. “It’s not a hidden secret that Chauncey has a very high ceiling. He has a golden arm for a quarterback and we want to use that talent as much as talent when we need it to help us win a football game.”
STOPPING THE RUN
Eastman said the main focus versus the Falcons would be stopping the run. The Panthers rushed for 331 yards against the Eagles, and Eastman knows SAU will be focused on eating up chunks of yards on the ground on Saturday.
“They (SAU) are a power running team and we obviously didn’t do a good job of stopping the run,” Eastman said. “They try to create extra gaps with pullers and double teams and things of that nature. They are going to feel good about their chances of creating some creases on our defensive line, maybe getting some movement. Our pluggers and defensive line will have to be a lot more demanding this week to get that done.”