For the third straight year, the season-ending rivalry game between North Carolina A&T and North Carolina Central will determine the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference football champion.
“This is Florida/Florida State. This is North Carolina/North Carolina State,” said sixth-year A&T head coach Rod Broadway who has coached in such big games at both Florida and UNC. Broadway was interviewed on the MEAC Coaches Teleconference Tuesday.
“Rivalry games are special all over the world no matter where you are,” Broadway said. “It’s no different at Alabama/Auburn than it is at North Carolina Central/North Carolina A&T.”
He’s right. But this Saturday’s showdown in Durham (2 p.m.) has even a bit more spice. That’s because in the two years that head coach Jerry Mack has led the NCCU Eagles, they have knocked off Broadway’s Aggies in the season finale to deny the Aggies the outright MEAC title and gain a share of the crown themselves.
In 2014, Mack’s troops prevailed in Durham, 21-14 creating a five-way tie with the Aggies, Bethune-Cookman, South Carolina State and Morgan State for the MEAC crown. Last year, the Eagles came out on top again, 21-16 at A&T forging a three-way tie including B-CU.
This time around, both teams enter the contest at 7-0 in conference play with the winner not having to share the crown. The winner will take the outright championshp and represent the league in the 2nd Annual Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl in Atlanta on Dec. 17.
North Carolina A&T (9-1) enters the contest as the No. 1 team in the BCSP Top Ten and ranked ninth nationally in both the FCS STATS and FCS Coaches poll. North Carolina Central (8-2) is third in the BCSP Top Ten, 20th in the Coaches Poll and 24th in the STATS poll.
A year ago, despite beating A&T in the finale and gaining a share of the title, NCCU did not advance to postseason play. The MEAC’s tie-breaking procedures knocked the Eagles out of a berth in the Celebration Bowl by virtue of their record vs. FCS opponents. A&T was awarded the bowl-game berth by virtue of having a higher rating than B-CU in Jeff Sagarin of USA Today’s rating system. Two years ago A&T running back Tarik Cohen ran for 203 yards on 20 carries but had a costly fumble late in the game near the NCCU goal line that allowed the Eagles to hold on for the 21-14 win.
Last year, Cohen, now the MEAC’s career rushing leader, ran for 112 yards but was kept out of the end zone. He was upstaged by a 167-yard rushing performance by NCCU freshman Dorrell McClain. Broadway admitted that last year NCCU’s offensive and defensive lines dominated play up front and the Aggies will have to play better on both sides to pull out a win. This year NCCU’s ground attack has been led by sophomore Ramone Simpson who has totalled 615 rushing yards and five TDs. Cohen leads the MEAC with 1,436 yards and 17 TDs.
NCCU senior quarterback Malcolm Bell is second in the league in passing yards (200.7 ypg.) and first in total offense at 242.0 yards per game. Bell has thrown for 2,007 yards and 15 touchdowns with 11 interceptions. He has rushed for 413 yards and seven scores.
Who will start at quarterback is somewhat up in the air for the Aggies. Sophomore starter Lamar Raynard did not play in Saturday’s win over Delaware State. Back-up Oluwafemi Bamiro took over and ran for 47 yards and completed 12 of 24 passes without an interception for 168 yards and two TDs. Cohen had his fourth 200-yard game of the season rushing for 221 yards and scoring on runs of 59 and 84 yards vs. DelState.
In other games Saturday, BCSP No. 2 Grambling State (7-1, 7-0 SWAC W) and No. 4 Southern (7-2, 7-0 W) try to stay on course for their Bayou Classic showdown next Saturday on Nov. 26 for the SWAC West title.
Grambling plays at Texas Southern (2 p.m.) while Southern hosts Mississippi Valley State (6 p.m.). The traditional season-ending and always well-attended Florida Classic pits Bethune-Cookman and Florida A&M at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando (2 p.m). Hampton and Norfolk State end their seasons and look for local Tidewater area bragging rights with their Battle of the Bay at Hampton’s Armstrong Field (1 p.m.).