NCCU starts MEAC play and hosts Florida A&M this week. Here are five keys to the game.

N.C. Central’s Isaiah Totten, right, carries the ball in front of Duke’s Marquis Waters during the Blue Devils’ 55-13 win over the Eagles on Saturday.
N.C. Central’s Isaiah Totten, right, carries the ball in front of Duke’s Marquis Waters during the Blue Devils’ 55-13 win over the Eagles on Saturday. AP

North Carolina Central returns to O’Kelly-Riddick Stadium Saturday, opening MEAC play by hosting Florida A&M (2-2, 1-0) at 4 p.m. (ESPN3).

The Eagles were originally scheduled to open league play two weeks ago at South Carolina State, but that game was postponed due to Hurricane Florence. NCCU has a three-game win streak over the Rattlers, but FAMU leads the all-time series 6-4-1.

The Eagles (1-2, 0-0) are coming off a 55-13 loss at Duke, while the Rattlers are coming off a 31-13 conference win over Savannah State.

Here are five keys to the game for NCCU:

Take the good from Duke film

On paper it looks like there wasn’t a lot of good to take out of a 42-point loss, but after looking at the film, Eagles’ head coach Granville Eastman said there was plenty the team can transfer to this weekend.

“Here’s the thing that I think everybody got out of it, certainly as the underdogs we fought and played together for 60 minutes,” Eastman said. “It was obvious in the first half there was some chemistry and we did some good things and played hard.”

Before he even looked at the tape, Eastman saw a good sign as he walked off the field last Saturday. He singled out defensive linemen Randy Anyanwu and Kawuan Cox for their effort throughout the entire game.

“What I saw before I came off the field was Kuwan Cox and Randy Anyanwu. On play 98, they were still firing off the ball.”

Taking care of the football

Through three games the Eagles have taken precious care of the football. NCCU is second in the MEAC in turnover margin, which is crucial to their success as they start league play.

The Eagles have one interception, thrown by Chauncey Caldwell in game one, but have not turned the ball over since. They’ve also forced three fumbles -- one returned for a touchdown -- and picked off one pass, which was also returned for a score. In the last 72 games, NCCU has scored 38 non-offensive touchdowns.

“From a statistical standpoint, turnovers, we’ve been possessing the ball very well and taking care of the football,” Eastman said. “I think those things will be essential if we’re going to win multiple games this year.”

Last season at FAMU, the Eagles returned an interception for a score and recovered a fumble in a seven-point win.

Personnel out the window

The Rattlers’ offense does a good job of putting the ball in the hands of their best athletes, regardless of position, Eastman said. FAMU will use a variety of jet sweeps and tosses to get the ball to their play makers, and will line up guys all over the field.

Rattlers’ head coach Willie Simmons will put a wide receiver in the backfield, or line up a running back out wide to run routes. FAMU’s Bishop Bonnett is listed at 5-9, 160 pounds, a receiver’s build, but he is the leading rusher on the team. He’s only five pounds lighter than leading receiver Xavier Smith, who has five carries this season for the Rattlers.

“Personnel is out the door because they can line up anywhere,” Eastman said. “Personnel, we can’t scheme off that. We don’t get an advantage on it on defense. You have to play to offensive sets and formations because personnel doesn’t give you a hint or a tip on what’s likely to happen.”

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.

Ten different players have at least one carry for FAMU this season and 15 different players have caught at least one pass. Five of those players have carried the ball out of the backfield and lined up wide to catch passes.

“What he’s doing is, he’s getting a lot more talented, fast guys out there,” Eastman said. “It’s not a pro-type. Simmons doesn’t really care, he wants athletes on the field.”

True identity

FAMU has won two games, by 34 and 18 points, respectively. In their two losses, they were beaten by 52 and two, respectively. Through four games, Eastman is still trying to get a true grasp of who his Eagles are facing Saturday.

He imagines that Simmons has the same problem when looking at film of the Eagles, who had a blowout win over Saint Augustine’s, but suffered two double-digit defeats.

“No one will know until that ball kicks off, that’s the honest to goodness truth,” Eastman said. “I’ve been trying to study this, really the last four years, and I have not been able to tell. Until we hit the field of play it’s hard to tell.”

The Eagles have won the last three games against the Rattlers by a combined 14 points, including a three-point win (17-13) in Hurricane Matthew the last time FAMU game to Durham two years ago.

“If it comes down to one of those fourth quarter decisions,” Eastman said. “I won’t be surprised.”

Not taking the MEAC lightly

Eastman said the tricky part of coaching young men is getting them to refocus after having some success during the first half of the Duke game. NCCU scored on offense and defense, stopped an ACC opponent from converting several first downs on fourth and short, and had success in the running game during the first half.

The players can easily get caught up in the mindset that if they found some success against a Power 5 school than the MEAC shouldn’t be as tough. Eastman, however, has a warning for them.

“Conference play is different,” Eastman said. “It’s pride. With pride comes a different type of passion. Maybe it might not be a guy 50 or 60 pounds bigger than you, but he plays with the same type of intensity, and you’re going to feel the same type of physicality to an extent, and you’re going to feel it over and over, so we’ve got to match that. The level of intensity isn’t going to diminish just because you’re in conference, there’s a lot more at stake now.”

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