Would the real North Carolina Central football team please stand up?
The last four outings have been a tale of two teams, a sort of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde situation, split into two games of the lowest of lows, and consecutive games of success that should give NCCU supports all kinds of optimism.
The Eagles (3-3, 2-1) ended September with two forgettable loses to Duke and FAMU when they were outscored 110-27. They quickly turned things around, starting 2-0 in October with a gutsy home win over Howard, 40-35, and a blowout win over Norfolk State, 36-6, on the road this past weekend.
So it makes one ask, have the Eagles finally found some consistency, or is this team going to continue to take fans on a seesaw ride of emotions?
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“Being on the inside and understanding how things work, I don’t think it’s a case of bipolar, I think it’s a case of growth,” head coach Granville Eastman said. “There’s going to come a time when we hit our stride. I don’t think it’s here right now, although we are having some success. I see the growth potential and the talent and I see where we are.”
The Eagles forced five takeaways at Norfolk State and pitched a shutout down to the final six seconds before allowing a late Spartans’ touchdown. Eastman said it was the best performance he’s seen from his team all season.
“So far this year, yes, without question,” Eastman said.”That has been our most complete game, and that’s the thing I’m most pleased about, I thought we had success in all three phases.”
Next up for the Eagles is a trip to Dover, Delaware and a showdown with Delaware State (0-7, 0-4), in what could be considered a trap game if NCCU gets caught looking ahead to next weekend’s homecoming against Edward Waters.
“Having been down this road before, I shared with the team that what they have to do is focus on the task at hand,” Eastman said. “A lot easier said than done.”
The Eagles’ trip to take on the Hornets will be the second time in as many weeks that NCCU has been the visitor for a homecoming game. Eastman uses that as a slight, as most homecoming opponents are scheduled because they are considered an easy win. Whether that’s true or not, it’s motivation.
“We are trying to use it as motivation as much as we can,” Eastman said. “There’s a certain respect factor that comes with that. We’re just trying to let people know that if you schedule us for homecoming, then we’re coming to homecoming and we’re going to have one of our best games.”
Sophomore linebacker Branden Bailey (11 tackles versus Norfolk State) said it was brought up as soon as the team reached the locker room at William “Dick” Price Stadium after the Norfolk State game.
“We feel like you should respect us enough to not schedule us,” Bailey said. “We come and still play the same ball, but we feel like it’s extra weight on our shoulders, like we have to come out with this win.”
N.C. Central forced five turnovers against the Spartans, including three interceptions. Senior safety Jaquell Taylor picked off a NSU pass in the endzone to stop an early scoring drive, while senior safety Davanta Reynolds and redshirt freshman linebacker Patrick Connor also earned their first interceptions of the season. Connor, along with linebacker King Kiaku, also recovered a fumble.
That meant the NCCU Takaway Belt, a reward for coming up with a turnover, was passed around quite a bit on the sidelines.
Once the turnovers start, Bailey said, it becomes contagious.
“If one linebacker gets a takeaway, then I feel like I need to go and get me one,” Bailey said. “It’s like everyone on the defense is trying to go out and get their (turnover) so that’s basically what made everyone start flying around and making more plays.”
STOPPING THE RUN
Despite the winless record, Delaware State boasts one of the best running attacks in the MEAC. The Hornets are second in the league in rushing offense, averaging 170.0 yards per game.
“Disregarding their record, if you watch them on film they start off games fast,” Bailey said. “They have a good running game. We’re going to prepare just like its any other game.”
DSU rushed for 193 yards last week in a 30-19 loss to South Carolina State. Their head coach, Rod Milstead was once the offensive line coach at NCCU. The Eagles’ defense was stout against the run last week, holding NSU to just 125 yards on the ground.
“We’re still going through some growing pains, both on and off the field, but I think we’re making some strides, especially on the defensive side of the ball,” Eastman said. “We’ve had to put in some new guys who had to take over for some graduates. Just getting that mix right and getting these young men the experience and chemistry has taken a little more time than I thought it would.”
SCOUT TEAM STEPS UP
After the 41-point home loss to FAMU, the Eagles had a players only meeting. One of the things addressed was the scout team. Rarely does the scout team get any attention outside or practice, but Bailey knew in order for the team to have success on Saturday’s, they needed to be pushed harder during the week.
After the FAMU game, that started to happen.
“We were telling the scout to go hard against us, don’t take it light on us,” Bailey recalled. “On game day they (the opponent) is not going to play around with us. So that basically helped us out. They (the scout team) probably were giving everything they had, but we felt like we needed a more realistic look, really.”