Bethune-Cookman’s prayer leads to heartbreak for NC Central

The NC Central, right, and Bethune-Cookman football teams line up on Saturday at O’Kelly-Riddick Stadium.
The NC Central, right, and Bethune-Cookman football teams line up on Saturday at O’Kelly-Riddick Stadium. Jonas Pope

The dream, for just a little while, was still alive. N.C. Central freshman quarterback Chauncey Caldwell threw a 4-yard touchdown pass to Xavier McCoy to give the Eagles a 10-7 lead over Bethune-Cookman with eight seconds remaining in the game.

The Wildcats countered with a two-play drive, and Larry Brihm Jr. hit Keavon Mitchell on a Hail Mary pass for 48 yards with no time remaining on the clock, giving the Wildcats a 13-10 victory. The loss ended N.C. Central’s quest for at least a share of a fourth consecutive MEAC crown.

The Eagles (7-3, 5-2 MEAC) struggled on offense most of the afternoon but went on a 15-play, 61-yard drive. N.C. Central faced fourth down twice. The first ended when the Wildcats were called for pass interference when Caldwell threw deep to McKoy. The Eagles ran the ball four out of the next five plays. Bethune-Cookman stopped N.C. Central’s running game, setting up a fourth-and-goal with the season, and another title, on the line.

There weren’t many highlights in the first half, as both teams went into the locker room at halftime scoreless. Each team blocked a field goal in the first half to keep the other off the scoreboard. N.C. Central’s Aedan Johnson had his 29-yard attempt swatted away by Gerome Howard on the Eagles’ final drive of the opening quarter.

On N.C. Central’s longest drive of the second quarter (eight plays), the Eagles were stopped on fourth-and-3 at the Bethune-Cookman 38. The Wildcats immediately went to work, covering 29 yards on two pass plays. Brihm picked up 11 with his legs on third-and-10, then threw three consecutive incompletions to set up a 38-yard field-goal attempt by Uriel Hernandez. N.C. Central senior safety Ruben Saunders broke through the protection to block the kick as the clock expired on the first half.

In a classic defensive struggle, the two teams combined for just 230 yards. The biggest play of the opening half for the home team was a 40-yard run by Caldwell. That drive, the first of the second quarter for the Eagles, ended in a punt. N.C. Central’s opening drive of the game ended in a turnover when Bethune-Cookman cornerback Elliot Miller picked off Caldwell. The Eagles’ next five drives ended with a punt, blocked field goal, two more punts and a turnover on downs.

The Wildcats didn’t fare much better, punting on six of their seven drives in the first half.

Bethune-Cookman finally got on the board in the third quarter, taking advantage of a muffed punt by N.C. Central’s Jacen Murphy. The Wildcats recovered on the 28. It took BCU five plays to find the end zone on a 1-yard run by Brihm. The Eagles did answer, going on an eight-play, 82-yard drive that ate up eight minutes off the clock. The drive ended in a 22-yard field goal by Johnson.

After N.C. Central forced a punt, the Eagles’ offense could only manage to gain 13 yards on six plays on the ensuing drive. A holding penalty put N.C. Central in a first-and-20, and the Eagles wouldn’t gain another yard on the drive, punting the ball back to Bethune-Cookman with 7:45 remaining in the game.

Jonas Pope IV: 919-419-7001, @JEPopeIV