Trei Oliver played at North Carolina Central for four years and coached their two more as an assistant.
But during the days he wore the maroon and gray and had the home crowd at his back, Oliver took for granted just how tough it is for visiting teams to play at O’Kelly-Riddick stadium.
It actually took two trips to “The Nest” on the visitors sideline for Oliver to realize how hard it can be for opposing teams. During his stint at North Carolina A&T, Oliver returned home, but there was nothing friendly about those trips to Durham.
“Central kicked our butt when I was at A&T,” Oliver said. “We were 0-2 both times I came into O’Kelly-Riddick. That’s it, it’s tough. The fans are right there on you.”
For the first time this season, Oliver and the Eagles will finally get to experience home-field advantage. After starting the season with three consecutive road losses, NCCU welcomes former CIAA foe Elizabeth City State (0-2, 0-1) to O’Kelly-Riddick.
The last time the Eagles started the season with three or more road games was 1996, their first home opponent that year — Elizabeth City State University.
That year Oliver was a member of the NCCU football team and the Eagles got the best of the Vikings, 34-0. NCCU fans hope for that same kind of success this time around against ECSU to get their season on the right track.
Since moving up to the Football Championship Subdivision, a home game against a Division II opponent has played in Central’s favor. The Eagles are a perfect 6-0 against CIAA schools since 2011, including a 34-7 win over the Vikings in 2014. NCCU holds a 20-8 overall advantage all-time over ECSU and have won four in a row in the series.
As a player, Oliver was 3-1 against the Vikings and undefeated against them as an assistant coach at NCCU. Being back in “The Nest” against a former conference rival will only make his return home that much more intriguing.
“All of the (opponents) in the CIAA were big games,” Oliver said, looking back over his playing days. “I’m sure those guys will be excited as well to play up and play us. Our guys have friends on that team, so I think it helps as far as recruiting in-state, so it should be a good game.”
NCCU has won seven consecutive home openers, all of them coming against opponents from the CIAA. That’s good news for Oliver. The last time he was part of a game played at O’Kelly-Riddick, he was the outside linebackers coach for A&T. The Eagles won that game 21-14. In a weird twist of events during the homecoming for Oliver, he went back to the locker room smelling like he was part of pregame festivities.
“I’m walking through the parking lot and one of my former teammates was excited to see me and ran over and jumped on me and spilled some alcohol on me,” Oliver recalled. “So I went in pregame smelling like liquor, so I think people might have thought I was drinking.”
The Eagles are looking for a reason to celebrate. They are off to an 0-3 start and have only scored one touchdown. NCCU had some serious red-zone woes during a 21-12 loss to Gardner-Webb last week, falling to score a touchdown during its five trips inside the 20. Instead, the Eagles had to settle for three Adrian Olivo field goals. By comparison, the offense was better than it has been all season, picking up 399 yards, but the inability to find the end zone is cause for concern. Oliver, however, thinks it’s an easy fix.
“We had some self inflicted negatives that hurt us,” Oliver said. “We threw a touchdown and it gets called back for a holding. We just have to clean the game up, play a little cleaner.”
True freshman quarterback Davius Richard was a bright spot, passing for 242 yards in his first start. But Oliver said the receivers, who had some drops, have to help their rookie quarterback, especially this week. After watching film, one ECSU unit that caught Oliver’s attention was the Vikings’ secondary.
But Oliver is more concerned about making sure the Eagles correct their mistakes. Even with history on their side, Oliver knows NCCU has to play better.
“We’re 0-3, we can’t sleep on anybody,” Oliver said. “We’re going to respect them like we respect Towson and Gardner-Webb and Austin Peay. This week is going to be about North Carolina Central and us getting better. When we clean up some of those other things, then we will be fine. But we have to improve, and it’s about North Carolina Central.”
Elizabeth City State at North Carolina Central
When: 4 p.m., Saturday
Where: O’Kelly-Riddick Stadium, Durham
Watch: NCCU Sports Network