As his team headed into the locker room after a 55-13 loss to Duke, North Carolina Central head coach Granville Eastman stood by the door, greeting every player.
Eastman made sure to pat every player on the back, telling them “way to fight, way to battle” as they headed in to take off their gear. Eastman was the last one in, making sure to deliver the message to each one of his players.
His message was pretty clear: despite a 42-point defeat, the Eagles showed flashes, especially in the first half when they trailed by seven, making the game a lot closer than the 25,132 fans in Wallace Wade expected.
In the end, Duke pulled away in the second half, winning their seventh consecutive game in the series, but Eastman and Eagles left campus with a lot to build on, but, as expected, a lot to work on as well.
“I thought our guys came out and fought real hard,” Eastman said. “The challenge was to fight for 60 minutes. I think to have a championship heart you have to have a little fight in you and a phenomenal effort in this game of football. I’m pleased with our young men’s effort. We can build on this and I feel very good about our opportunity going into MEAC play.”
Running the ball (early)
In the first half, the Eagles found some running lanes in the Duke defense, especially sophomore running back Isaiah Totten. Totten, who rushed for an 81-yard touchdown against the Blue Devils last season, broke for a 59-yard gain in the first quarter. Even though the Eagles came up empty that drive, the staff saw something that convinced them they could move the chains on the ground at times.
Totten averaged 7.3 yards per carry before leaving the game late in the second quarter with a shoulder injury. He finished with 88 yards rushing to lead the Eagles.
NCCU’s 159 rushing yards on Saturday were the most in the series against Duke.
“They were doing somethings up front that we thought we could take advantage of,” Eastman said. “And you saw those results in the first half.”
GETTING OFF THE FIELD
The Eagles found a way to stay ahead of the chains against Duke defensively, more than they have in the past. And in those rare situations when the Blue Devils got into a fourth and short, the NCCU defense found a way to get off the field three times in the first half. One of those times led to a 55-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown by Jordan McRae in the second quarter. That play made it a seven-point game (20-13) with 12:26 remaining in the first half.
“That was one of the defensive objectives,” Eastman said. “We challenged our guys to get off the field. I was pleased that we improved from the last time out to this game.”
In the last four games against Duke, NCCU only had two plays total of 30 yards or more.The team had two plays that covered 30 yards or more in the first half. Totten’s 59-yard gain in the first quarter got things started, and Ramadan’s 36-yard pass to Nique Martin. Those two plays proved that the Eagles could pull off the home runs against an FBS defense.
“Offensively, our playmakers have shown up,” Eastman said. “They’ll prove to be a force.”
What didn’t work
NOT RUNNING THE BALL
As well as Totten and Jordan Freeman were able to find running lanes against Duke, the Blue Devils knew Ramadan wasn’t a threat to keep the football on the option play.
Ramadan only had three carries for four yards, and his decision to hand the ball off instead of keep it made the offense one dimensional in that phase of the game. Eastman said Ramadan has the option to keep the ball on those type of plays, and he even joked he likes it better when he hands it off, but that became predictable and it looked like at times Duke didn’t have a player accounting for the quarterback.
“We do have reads, if they do something to hold him, he hands it off,” Eastman said. “If they do something to show that he pulls it, then he does. I think he pulled it a couple of times, but I’m always happen when he gives it, I’ll be honest with you.”
THIRD QUARTER DEFENSE
Eastman said he has noticed a trend where teams are coming out and scoring on their first drive of the third quarter, and that concerns him.
Duke scored on all three of its third quarter possessions, extending its lead to 48-13. On their first drive of the half, the Blue Devils only needed two plays to cover 43 yards, as Brittain Brown scored on a 43-yard touchdown run.
“We’ve got to stop or get a punt or some kind of stop early on so our offense can get going,” Eastman said. “I don’t know if that’s youthfulness or play calling, but we have to go back and look at that and get off to a faster start defensively.”
NOT TAKING A SHOT
Towards the end of the second quarter, the Eagles had the ball on the Duke 37. The drive started with 2:13 showing on the clock and NCCU used 11 plays to move into Blue Devil territory. The drive stalled and the Eagles faced a fourth and 14 with less than 20 seconds on the clock. Instead of taking a shot at the endzone, Eastman decided to punt. Duke got the ball back at the 20 with four seconds remaining and took a knee, but the underdog Eagles, down 27-13, might have come up lucky with a hail mary attempt.
“It’s just a call that, we weren’t in field goal range, but hind set 20/20 we probably should have taken a shot,” Eastman said. “I wanted to just try to get out of the half with what we had and gather ourselves. It’s something I’ll have to look at as the head coach, making that call.”