North Carolina Central quarterback Chauncey Caldwell led the Eagles on a 7-play, game-winning drive, capping off a wild shootout with Howard, as NCCU got back in the win column with a 40-35 win over the Bison.
Caldwell, who was relegated to a backup role the last three games, was 3-for-4 on the final drive through the air, and punched it in from the 3-yards out with 24 seconds remaining for the game winner.
Caldwell and the Eagles (12-3, 1-1) out dueled Caylin Newton and the Bison (1-3, 1-1), who drove into NCCU territory in just two plays after Newton completed passes to Jequez Ezzard and Kyle Anthony. The 32-yard gain to Anthony was aided by a personal foul call against Kawuan Cox, moving the ball to the Eagles’ 17. On the next play NCCU cornerback Marcus Martin picked off Newton, forcing the first turnover of the game.
“I knew it was coming my way,” Martin said. “When I saw it all I said in my head was I need to jump up and catch it just to save the game.”
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It was one of the few mistakes for Newton, who passed for 381 yards and three touchdowns, and rushed for 77. But it was Caldwell, who finished with 464 yards of total offense (311 passing) and four scores, and the Eagles who got the last laugh.
“We were just prepared all week,” Caldwell said. “Last week (55-14 loss to FAMU), in my opinion, was a fluke and we just got it together, we bought in and we produced this week.”
The Eagles racked up 528 yards of total offense, while Howard finished with 598.
NCCU and Howard exchanged touchdowns like punches in a heavyweight fight during the first half. Three of the Bison five first-half drives ended with a score, while the Eagles, who’ve struggled offensively the last two weeks, scored on four of their five drives. The only NCCU drive that didn’t result in points for the Eagles were points for Howard when Caldwell was dropped in the endzone for a safety on their second offensive drive of the afternoon.
With Caldwell taking over the starting role again this week, the sophomore from Durham led the Eagles on a scoring drive on their first possession, driving the team 91-yards in nine plays, capped off by a 6-yard run by Isaiah Totten.
Howard went up 3-0 to start the game, covering 70 yards in a clock draining 14-play opening drive of the contest. The NCCU defense, however, showed they would bend by but not break twice in the opening quarter. They forced a field goal on the opening drive, stuffing Newton on third and goal, and fourth and one on consecutive drives.
The second quarter provided way more fireworks from both sides. Newton found Ezzard for two scores in the second, the first covering 40-yards, putting the visitors up 12-7. The Eagles briefly retook the lead when Caldwell hit Stephens for a 35-yard strike, but the Bison countered with another Newton to Ezzard connection for a 54-yard score.
NCCU ended the half with a Caldwell touchdown pass to EJ Hicks for 17 yards, and a 42-yard field goal Adam Lippy, putting the Eagles up 24-19 at intermission. Neither team punted in the first half and combined for 34 first downs.
Caldwell led the team on a 5-play, 75-yard scoring drive to start the third quarter, hitting Xavier McKoy for a 38-yard strike to give NCCU a 30-19 lead, before Newton connected with Ezzard (8-174) for consecutive scores. On the next two drives, both teams punted for the first time of the day. Howard struck first to start the fourth - a 35-yard field goal from Faraji Joseph - and the Eagles answered with a 42-yard field goal from Lippy to make it 34-29 with 8:59 remaining. Howard’s final score came with 6:19 remaining - a 19-yard run by Khalid Dorsey - setting the stage for the Eagles’ game winner.
“Our offensive guys had an excellent game plan,” NCCU head coach Granville Eastman said. “I knew it was going to come down to who had the ball last kind of deal just by the way the game was going back and forth.”
The Bison, not the Eagles, actually had the ball last, but the defense came up with a much needed stand. After getting 55 points scored on them in consecutive weeks, the defense stood tall with its back against the wall.
“It was definitely a wake up call,” Martin said about the defense giving up 55 points last week in their conference opener. “All the work we did, it we lose it was all for nothing. We (have) momentum, now we have to keep going.”
In perhaps his best performance since arriving on campus, Caldwell hit six different receivers, led by Nique Martin with seven catches, and had a career-day, looking the most comfortable he’s looked in an Eagles, uniform.
“We’re just getting started,” Caldwell said. “We have so many young guys and those guys have unbelievable talent and all I do is just give them the ball and they do their job.”