Saturday, N.C. Central (1-1) will take a short bus trip across town to Duke (3-0) for the ‘Bull City Classic.’
It’s the seventh time the two teams have met, with the Blue Devils winning the previous six and outscoring the Eagles 312-44.
This past weekend, Duke is coming off an impressive 40-27 road win over Baylor, while NCCU had its conference opener at South Carolina State postponed due to Hurricane Florence.
Typically, Duke and N.C. Central play each other in their season openers, but this season is different and Eagles interim coach Granville Eastman says that’s not necessarily a good thing.
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“The honest, matter of fact answer is no,” Eastman said. “What happens is, you go along in the season, and it’s that big jump from week one to week two, or two to three. So we are really getting a much better version of Duke.”
If NCCU hopes to pull off the upset, here are five things that have to happen:
Stay on the field on offense
The Eagles’ offense has to pick up first downs and stay on the field. In 2016, the Eagles had a record-breaking offense, but only picked up seven first downs in the first half of their 49-6 loss to Duke.
NCCU fared better against Duke last season, picking up eight first downs in the game, and got on the board in the second quarter thanks to an 81-yard touchdown run by running back Isaiah Totten. Even though Duke won 60-7, the NCCU offense showed, in spurts, it could move the ball. That needs to happen at a higher volume this Saturday. NCCU punted the ball nine times last season, while the Blue Devils only punted three.
In two games, the Eagles have yet to score on their opening drive, going scoreless in the opening quarter of their 40-24 loss to Prairie View A&M, and coming up empty on their first two drives in their 51-14 win at home over Saint Augustine’s in Week 2.
Get off the field on defense
The Eagles have to make sure the Blue Devils’ punters get some work in on Saturday. In their last two trips to Duke, the NCCU defense stayed on the field for too long as the Blue Devils moved down the field with ease. Duke ran 81 offensive plays in its game against N.C. Central in 2017, and ran 89 in 2016.
Obviously, the defense wants to force three-and-outs, and NCCU has only forced two the last two seasons against the Blue Devils, both in 2017. The Duke offense was a machine last year, going on nine drives that were at least six plays. The Blue Devils went on five drives that were eight plays or more. The Eagles’ defense can’t allow Duke to get into a lot of second and short, third and short plays.
“You want to get them in third and long situations where maybe the entire playbook is not available to them, with the opportunity defensively to bring pressure if you want,” Eastman said. “What we found in the past is that not bringing pressure with the kind of quarterbacks they have has worked against us. They’ve done a very good job of staying ahead of the chains.”
Don’t fall behind early
Falling behind early has been the biggest issue for the Eagles since they started the series with Duke. In 2016, the Blue Devils scored on seven of their first 10 drives, jumping out to a 49-0 lead. Last season Duke scored on all seven of their first-half drives, leading 47-7 at the break.
Blue Devils’ coach David Cutcliffe said whenever an upset occurs in college football, it’s usually because the underdog team hung around early and gained some confidence. He doesn’t want his team to become the latest victims.
“We’ve seen a lot of circumstances where you might be looking at the score and you’re seeing two minutes to go in the second quarter and somebody is behind, or it’s tied, whatever the circumstances maybe” Cutcliffe explained. “Then you start thinking, ‘that’s going to be an upset.’ Good starts are important anytime, but it’s something that’s important to us. It does measure efficiency. Are you ready, are you efficient, in all three phases?”
Eastman knows his team can’t put up a goose egg in the opening quarter against a quality opponent like Duke.
“I would like to see us stick around and be in the game longer,” Eastman said. “In order for us to do that we have to execute successfully.”
Flip the field
If the NCCU offense isn’t scoring or getting first downs, the Eagles’ special teams unit can play a role in pulling off the upset. Eastman said if his team isn’t moving the ball, flipping the field can help keep the game close.
In 2017, the Blue Devils only started three drives inside their own 20. Duke’s average starting field position was their own 31. They started one drive on the 50 and one on the 49, both drives ended in touchdowns and took less than three minutes.
Don’t get the bright eyes
In his past experience, Eastman said playing Duke has been all about mindset. His guys realize they are playing an FBS opponent and that might get in their heads before the game. That’s something he plans on addressing with the team this week.
This season, the Eagles played their first game on national television and Eastman hopes that experience got any kind of big stage nerves or butterflies out the way.
“I think there is something to that,” Eastman said. “Like a lot of things in life it’s about experience.”
NCCU returns just nine starters from last season, and just three on defense. So for the new guys, it’s all about calming them down and not getting starstruck against an ACC opponent.
“All of those things they kind of got out of the way,” Eastman said. “Duke will be a good experience for our young players in their first time against an FBS team.”
NC Central at Duke
When: 3:30 p.m., Saturday
Where: Wallace Wade Stadium, Durham
TV: ACC Network Extra