Sports

Close calls are business as usual for NC Central in MEAC football games

North Carolina Central’s Isaiah Totten looks for extra running room against Howard. Totten and the Eagles will travel to Norfolk, Va. to take on Norfolk State University this weekend.
North Carolina Central’s Isaiah Totten looks for extra running room against Howard. Totten and the Eagles will travel to Norfolk, Va. to take on Norfolk State University this weekend. NCCU Athletics

North Carolina Central’s Granville Eastman won’t make his doctor any happier by coaching in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.

Not that coaching is dangerous, but Eastman joked that his heart might not be able to handle the down-to-the-wire games the Eagles have become so accustomed to playing every Saturday.

Last weekend, NCCU (2-3, 1-1) stayed in character by edging out Howard 40-35 in O’Kelly-Riddick Stadium.

Since 2014, the Eagles have won 26 conference games. In 15 of those wins, NCCU won by a touchdown or less. Even the games they’ve lost have been thrilling. In 2017, they dropped two of their three league losses by a combined 10 points. They only lost three league games between the 2014 and 15 season -- by a combined 17 points. Living on the edge has become the identity of the conference.

“My heart can’t take it as much, and I’ve probably aged about five years from the last game,” Eastman said with a laugh. “I think it really gives a coach and the coaching staff an idea of where their team is. If you can find ways to win close ball games it speaks about your preparation, it speaks to, you know, your overall character. And it really speaks to a lot of things I think, intangibles about the individuals that you just can’t coach; how bad they want it, how you know how much success means to them.”

NC Central's Granville Eastman discusses the expectations of his first year as the Eagles' head coach before the Pigskin Preview in Cary on July 16, 2018.

Norfolk State, the Eagles’ next opponent, has always been a game that leaves NCCU fans on the edge of their seats until the final whistle.

Last season in Durham, the Spartans ended the Eagles 18-game conference win streak and 11-game home win streak with a seven-point victory. The previous season, in Norfolk, NCCU won 34-31, their first MEAC win of the 2016 en route to an undefeated league record and a outright MEAC title.

Fans would have to go back to 2013 to find a double-digit win, an 11-point victory by the Spartans. Eastman couldn’t put his finger on exactly what it was that always make for close games with NSU (3-2, 1-1). Both teams pride themselves on playing a physical brand of football, he said.

“It’s not a team you can take lightly,” Eastman said. “We definitely have to get up for that football game. I think it stems from a mutual respect.”’’

MEAC standings

For the first time since 2015 the Eagles are 1-1 in league play. At this point every team is chasing 4-0 FAMU at the top of the league standings. There is five-team logjam in the middle of the conference, with A&T, Bethune-Cookman, Howard, Norfolk State and NCCU each with one loss. Eastman said that speaks to the parity of the league, but knows they can keep climbing the rankings. Three of those five teams are on the remaining schedule for the Eagles.

“It’s one game at a time,” Eastman said. “This is the most important game in our program’s history because this one is the next one up. We feel like that we are in a playoff football situation.”

PERSONAL FOULS



Discipline on the field has been an issue for the Eagles for some time now, and the problem popped up again, at the worst time, versus Howard. It didn’t cost NCCU the game, but it did put Howard in position to almost connect on a short, game-winning touchdown.

On the last drive of the day for the Bison, Eagles’ junior defensive end Kawuan Cox was called for roughing the passer, moving the ball to the 17. Moving forward, Eastman knows those plays can’t continue to happen. Roughing the passer penalties and late hits could be chalked up to guys being aggressive, but Eastman can’t pinpoint if that’s it. Either way, he wants it to stop.

“I think as a coach you have to take into consideration that sometimes there are some aggressive penalties,” Eastman said. “Majority of them are just bonehead. They are penalties of mindlessness and those can’t be tolerated.”

CALDWELL VS. NEWTON

NCCU quarterback Chauncey Caldwell, coming off a 464-yard day, said he models his game after Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. Like Newton, Caldwell, 6-2, 225 pounds, is a big body quarterback who can run (153 rushing yards versus Howard) and throw. Caldwell said Newton is his favorite player and it turns out that Caldwell is 2-0 against Newton’s younger brother, Caylin, the starting quarterback at Howard.

“I’m a competitor,” Caldwell said. “I compete in everything I do in life, so it feels pretty good.”

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