North Carolina Central won’t be going to the NCAA Division I-FCS playoffs, but the Eagles are co-champions of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference after defeating archrival N.C. A&T 21-14 before a sell-out crowd at O’Kelly-Riddick Stadium.
In just his first season at the helm, Eagles coach Jerry Mack has accomplished something no Eagles football coach has done since the university reclassified to Division I status. NCCU will share the title with four other conference teams. Only one team gets the automatic bid, and the Eagles were eliminated from that when Morgan State won its Saturday game.
But neither Mack nor the players were thinking any negative thoughts.
“We didn’t win all the battles we needed to win this year, but we won the one that counted,” said Mack, whose team defeated a nationally ranked FCS squad for the first time in nine tries. “This is a great victory for our team and for our program.”
Neither team played its best ball. NCCU lost two of three fumbles and N.C. A&T both of its fumbles, the last at the 1-yard line late in the fourth quarter.
The difference was the Eagles defense, which sacked Aggies quarterback Kwashaun Quick four times for a minus-28 yards and limited N.C. A&T to 3 of 14 third-down conversions.
No one was more deadly to the offense than NCCU senior defensive end Ty Brown, who recorded three sacks for a loss of minus-23 yards, four tackles for another 24 yards and one forced fumble.
“This is the best defense we’ve played all year,” Brown said. “This is my last year and to say we beat A&T feels good. Now we can go and have some fun.”
The Eagles broke a seven-all halftime tie with a six-play, 84-yard drive that culminated in running back Andre Clark scoring his 15th touchdown of the season with 12:42 left in the third quarter.
NCCU caught a break when N.C. A&T’s Khris Gardin fumbled a punt at the Aggies 37. Quarterback Malcolm Bell (14-21-121-1) took it in from there to put the Eagles up 21-7 with 6:45 left in the quarter.
“Let’s give NCCU credit, they played a good game and executed well,” said coach Rod Broadway who had won three straight over the Eagles since taking over at N.C. A&T. “We picked a bad time to play bad, and had a lot of mistakes.”
The Aggies got back into the game on the legs of running back and Bunn native Tarik Cohen who ran all three plays of a 74-yard drive to pull the Aggies to within seven. Cohen finished with 203 yards on 20 carries and two touchdowns.
But with the Aggies driving for a possible tying or go-ahead touchdown with 4:31 left, Cohen fumbled at the NCCU 1 to thwart the drive.
N.C. A&T had one last opportunity at the NCCU 44 with 2:38 left, but the Eagles defense held on fourth down.
“We knew that we could play them physically because our last game was physical,” Bell said. “I still can’t believe it. It’s just an awesome feeling.”