NCCU Eagles prepare for rivalry game with Bethune-Cookman
It’s fitting that Bethune-Cookman was wearing all white last season in Durham, because the Wildcats, especially wide receiver Keavon Mitchell, might as well be a ghost to Granville Eastman and the North Carolina Central football team.
What Mitchell did has kept Eastman, the Eagles’ head coach, up at night. Eastman was the defensive coordinator last season and served as the safeties coach.
Mitchell was on the receiving end of a desperation pass from quarterback Larry Brihm, who chucked the ball 48 yards in the air, landing perfecting in the hands of Mitchell, who was able to sneak behind the NCCU secondary and cradle the ball as he fell to the ground for the walk-off touchdown. BCU left Durham with a 13-10 win, ruining the Eagles chance to compete for a MEAC title the next week.
“It’s going to keep me up for a long, long time,” Eastman said on Tuesday in reference to the hail mary play that started with six seconds on the clock. “Coaches, you know we have internal battles, I’m not going to share right now, but you do second guess and think what could you have done differently and what not. You hope the moment comes up again and you’re much better prepared.”
The Eagles will get their chance again at the Wildcats when the two teams meet Thursday (7 p.m., ESPNU) in Daytona Beach, Fla. This will be the 10th meeting between the two schools, and the last two in Durham have come down to the final play. There was Mitchell’s catch last season, and BCU blocked an 18-yard field goal attempt in 2015.
The crazy part about Mitchell’s catch, besides the fact that it’s rare the play actually works, is that the Wildcats tried it the previous week against North Carolina A&T. The ball fell short against the Aggies, but that dry run gave Mitchell an idea of what he and Brihm needed to do to be successful if the opportunity came again. They didn’t have to wait long.
“The game before we didn’t have as much time and (Larry) threw it a little too early,” Mitchell said. “This time (against NCCU) I told him to wait and try to buy a little bit more time, as much as he could, then throw it. He did and it just happened to fall in my hands.”
Mitchell, who leads the team this season with 33 receptions for 401 yards and five scores, said he hasn’t watched the play much since last year, and he only talks about it when someone on campus brings it up. He remembers the look on the faces of the Eagles, especially the seniors, who were playing their final game in O’Kelly-Riddick Stadium.
“I remember they had a lot of seniors,” Mitchell said. “I know that hurt.”
Eastman doesn’t have as many upperclassmen this time around, which means there aren’t as many players who have been around for the close battles against the Wildcats. The only players on the current roster who saw action in the 2015 nail-bitter were senior safety Davanta Reynolds, who started that season as a redshirt freshman, and backup cornerback Jamarcus Joyner. Eastman says that could be a good or bad thing.
“If there’s a concern that I have, it’s that we have some new members to the party, so to speak, who really don’t understand and they are figuring this thing out game by game,” Eastman said. “The game in the process is going to let them know what this is all about. They are going to have to learn it.”
The teams enter the contest each with two loses in MEAC play, two of four teams with two league loses. BCU (5-5, 3-2), sit two spots ahead of the Eagles (4-4, 2-2) in the MEAC standings. League leading FAMU (5-1, MEAC) suffered its first conference loss over the weekend to Howard, and Eastman feels like there is an outside shot at another crown. He says anything can happen, and uses the 2015 season, when there was a five-way tie between two loss teams, for the title. The rest of the season has to be treated like the playoffs Eastman said.
“This path is sort of similar,” Eastman said. “It’s an uphill battle, we understand that, but there’s a lot to play for.”