The race for the MEAC championship has come down to the final week of the regular season and while things are much clearer this week than they were a fee weeks ago, there is still a question as to whether there will be an outright champion or a log jam at the top when the smoke clears late tomorrow afternoon on this rivalry weekend.
Florida A&M was riding high just three weeks ago needing only one win to seal up the title but a tough loss at Howard followed by an inexplicable 44-21 blowout loss to a peaking S. C. State last Saturday in Tallahassee has thrown considerable doubt into the picture with the Rattlers now feeling considerable pressure heading the Florida Classic against a arch rival Bethune Cookman in Orlando.
N.C. A&T took a another big step toward nailing down postseason play in either the Celebration Bowl or the FCS playoffs by handling Savannah State on the road 28-12 pushing the Aggies up to the 12th spot in the FCS national rankings. It was A&T’s third straight win and keeps the Aggies right on the tail of Florida A&M who owns the head-to-head match-up.
NCCU ran up 387 yards in total offense but couldn’t overcome the one man offensive show of Jimmy Robinson and blocked field goal in the overtime period as the Eagles dropped a 28-25 heartbreaker to Bethune Cookman on the road. It marked the third straight year that NCCU has lost to BCU on the last play of the game.
Norfolk State ended Howard’s hope for a share of the title as the Spartans dominated the Bison 29-17 behind QB Juwan Carter’s sterling 256 yard (3 TD) passing performance. The Spartan defense clamped down on Howard’s vaunted Go-Go offense by intercepting
QB Caylin Newton twice and holding the Bison to a pedestrian 273 yards for the game.
Two huge games are on tap for Saturday as two big rivalry games are set to kickoff at 2 p.m. Florida A&M (6-4, 5-1) can determine its own destiny as they will face Bethune Cookman (6-5, 4-2) in the Florida Classic. A win would give FAMU its first title since 2010 and a berth in the Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl.
N. C. A&T (8-2, 5-1) will be keeping an eye on scoreboard but they’ll have stay focused down in Durham as they take on N.C. Central (4-5, 2-3) before a sell out crowd. An A&T win coupled with a FAMU loss would give the Aggies their second straight outright title and the bowl berth. If both A&T and FAMU come away with wins, then the Aggies will be headed into the FCS playoffs beginning next week.
S. C. State (4-5 3-2) will be entertaining Savannah State (2-7,1-5) at 1:30 pm in what will be the Tigers final football game as a D-I combatant. SSU slides down to D-II and rejoins the SIAC in all sports beginning next season. Norfolk State (4-5, 2-4) will host Morgan State (3-7, 2-4) and Howard (4-5, 4-3) will welcome non-conference FCS foe Bryant University (5-5) in D.C. Both games are slated for a 1 pm start.
Delaware State (2-8, 2-5) will host Virginia-Lynchburg on its Senior Day beginning at 2:00 pm.
North Carolina Central is a team that is going through a year of transition under interim head coach Granville Eastman who also doubles as the defensive coordinator for the Eagles. NCCU has been an conundrum of sorts this season, either playing very well in some games like against Norfolk and Howard or demonstratively bad like Delaware State or FAMU and not too many games in between those two extremes.
The Eagles lost starting quarterback Chauncey Caldwell three weeks ago and have retooled their offense around running back Isaiah Totten (5-9,185, 802 yds). Totten is the MEAC’s second leading rusher behind A&T’s Marquell Cartwright. A speedy darting back, he is very slippery and utilizes the cutback move very effectively.
Naiil Ramadan (6-0,190, Jr.) stepped into the starting role when Caldwell went down with a season ending foot injury and has performed well. While not nearly the run threat of a Caldwell, he is a much more polished passer and has quick enough feet to avoid pressure and find his receivers.
The Eagles will have a stout offensive line with Nick Leveritt (6-4, 310, Jr.), Malik Reynolds (6-5, 360, So.), and true freshman Ricky Lee (6-5, 280). The big names in the receiving corps are Nique Martin, Xavier McKoy and E. J. Hicks (5-11,160) .
On defense the Eagles have been more than a little porous this season giving up an uncharacteristic 30.3 points and 420 yards per game. Senior end Darius Royster (6-2, 215) and NFL safety prospect Davanta Reynolds (5-11, 210, Sr.) are the heart and soul of the defense.
The biggest drop off this season has come in the inability to consistently stop the run. The Eagles are not a very big team and depend heavily on run blitzing in the gaps to offset their lack of size. Up front the Eagles average just 240 pounds in the front four. They will show multiple fronts with two very active linebackers, King Kiaku ( 5-11, 245, Sr.) and Branden Bailey (6-0, 235, So.) often playing very close to the line of scrimmage. In order to provide even more pressure in passing situations, NCCU will often times bring strong safety Anthony Sherrill (6-0,210) off the edge.
For the second straight year, the A&T-NCCU match-up will mean a title opportunity for just one of the participants and for the second straight year that participant is A&T. A capacity crowd of some 12,000 are expected to be in attendance at O’Kelly-Riddick Stadium for this 90th meeting between these two bitter rivals.
A&T leads the series 50-34-5 but it was NCCU’s recent string of 3 straight wins (2014-2016) in which there were championship implications for both teams is what in large part has fueled the recent animus which resulted in an almost ugly episode in last year’s pre-game warm-ups.
This year only one team has postseason hopes going in and NCCU stands in the way of the Aggies of grabbing at least a share of it fourth championship in five years. Aside from the possible distraction of flaring tempers this will be a game about match-ups and where execution at critical junctures will determine the winner.
NCCU has retooled its offense to some degree since Caldwell went down, incorporating a power running game behind a big young offensive line which has had its ups and downs with pass protection.
So while Ramdan has been getting his feet under him as the starter, the Eagles have featured their outstanding big play running back in Isaiah Totten, getting him the ball as much as possible in a variety ways.
A&T will need be on their toes for screens and wheel routes and be really efficient in their tackling especially in the open field. The key to A&T getting the win in this game will be stopping the Eagle ground game and keeping NCCU in long yardage situations.
A&T QB Lamar Raynard will be returning to the lineup this week after missing the Savannah State game and a week and half of practice before clearing concussion protocol. Just how much he will play will be dependant on how well he can acclimate himself to contact. Raynard has never played in a game on the road against Central and has made no secret that he is looking forward to the opportunity.
The big thing with A&T is that the Aggies must keep their composure, concentrate on the task at hand, and execute their assignments. Sounds simple enough but the magnitude of this rivalry lends itself to a lot of chippiness and self indulgence in alpha male bravado that will most certainly gain unwanted attention of the officials.
The fact is the match-ups in this game favor the Aggies – speed, size, depth, and experience. The coaching challenge will be less about X’s and O’s but more about the mental preparation and staying on point.
Winning this game will go a long way in confirming that A&T’s football program is more than just one particular coach or one great team but a continuing progression toward enduring excellence year in and year out which is something that is almost impossible to achieve these days in college football without some very deep pockets.
N.C. A&T – 31
NCCU – 13