NC Central can’t come up with enough big plays to hang with NC A&T in season finale

North Carolina Central safety Alden McClellon, left, brings down North Carolina A&T quarterback Lamar Raynard during the first half of the Aggies 24-10 win over the Eagles.
North Carolina Central safety Alden McClellon, left, brings down North Carolina A&T quarterback Lamar Raynard during the first half of the Aggies 24-10 win over the Eagles. NCCU Athletics

To say this has been a frustrating season for the N.C. Central football team might not be fair.

A lot of teams would love to win seven games and finish above .500 in conference play. But it wasn’t the season the Eagles expected. Picked to finish first in the MEAC back in August, N.C. Central dropped to 7-4 overall and 5-3 in conference play after falling 24-10 on Saturday to rival N.C. A&T.

Under Jerry Mack, who won three consecutive league titles, a streak that came to an end this season, the expectations are a lot higher. N.C. A&T ended N.C. Central’s season on Saturday, a season the Eagles knew wouldn’t end with a title last week when they were defeated by Bethune-Cookman on a last-second Hail Mary pass.

Playing for pride only, the Aggies made the plays when they counted, while the Eagles ended their season with back-to-back conference losses for the first time under Mack.

“We just didn’t play well enough,” Mack said. “I thought our guys came out and were focused. We started out the first half playing pretty decent. The second half was kind of a debacle. We were able to pop one touchdown in the second half, but it wasn’t enough.”

The Aggies (11-0, 8-0) led 7-3 at the break but scored on their first two drives to start the third quarter to take a 21-3 lead. Mack said his team never recovered. A&T only needed 13 plays between the two drives to change the trajectory of the game. N.C. Central, which exploded for 42 points during a homecoming win over Delaware State on Oct. 28, couldn’t move the ball against the Aggies, something that has hurt the Eagles the last three games. Since that win last month the Eagles have recorded only one offensive touchdown in three consecutive games, averaging just 11 points per game.

“Playing with nine new starters on offense (this season) didn’t really help at all,” Mack said. “I thought Chauncey Caldwell (15-for-29 for 129 yards) got kind of thrust into the starting role, and I thought he did an admirable job, but we have to get better offensively. We have to do some things to recruit some different players that’s going to make us explosive. We have to do some things up front to continue to get better.”

The Eagles’ offense showed the Aggies, who has the top defense in the MEAC, that it could move the ball against them on the opening drive. N.C. Central marched down the field, covering 65 yards on 11 plays. However, freshman kicker Aedan Johnson missed a field-goal attempt from 27 yards out. Mack said that didn’t change the mindset, but the missed opportunity to score has been a theme all season. Several times in 2017, the team would show flashes on offense, but come up empty when it needed points. N.C. Central was 1-for-2 in the red zone against the Aggies. On the flip side, A&T went a perfect 4-for-4 from inside the 20.

The Eagles only averaged 3.6 yards per play. A&T was slightly better, averaging 5.9 per snap, but hit a couple of home runs, the kind of plays that N.C. Central couldn’t make, in the second half. The biggest one came on third-and-5, when Aggies quarterback Lamar Raynard hit Elijah Bell for a 38-yard gain, as Bell made a nice one-handed grab on the sideline. That catch led to a field goal from A&T for the final margin of victory.

Plays like that seemed to be right out of the grasp of the Eagles. When Caldwell dropped back and tossed the ball down field to a wide-open Xavier McKoy, the ball sailed on Caldwell and over the outstretched arms of McKoy. If Caldwell hits McKoy in stride, it’s a seven-point game with plenty of time remaining on the clock. But like so many times this season, the Eagles could only come close to making a big play.

“They made more plays than us when it came down to it,” Mack said. “We were in position, we gave up very little explosive plays, but those guys, there’s a reason they are champs, they came to play.”

Offensively, the Eagles should return nine starters next year and four on defense. Mack hated this one for his seniors, who have meant so much to the program the last few seasons. They set a new standard for N.C. Central football.

“We set a culture and a standard around here the last few years,” Mack said. “We have to do better. We can get fixed, things are not unfixable. We have a good core coming back, and we are going to add to that core, and I think we are going to be in the mix next year.”

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