by Mike Potter
PEARSON CAFETERIA/DURHAM N.C. Central looks to be in a pretty deep hole right now.
The Eagles, in their third football season of the five-year transition from NCAA Division II to Division I (Championship Subdivision), are carrying an 0-4 record that with a couple of better bounces might be 2-2.
And they're coming off an emotional 49-14 loss in the "Bull City Gridiron Classic," NCCU's first game against Duke in which the Eagles fought hard and made the first half exciting but didn't have enough manpower to hang with the established Division I (Bowl Subdivision) Blue Devils.
But maybe there's nothing better than one of those "throw out the records" games with an historic multiple arch-rival to get the engines started again.
On Saturday at 6 p.m., Mose Rison (pictured) and his team will visit Aggie Stadium in Greensboro to take on North Carolina A&T (2-2), a former CIAA and MEAC rival since the leather-helmet days that will be an MEAC rival once again next season. And these people just plain don't like each other's logos. The rivalry has to at least be in the conversation as the nastiest in North Carolina.
A&T leads the series 45-30-5, but most of that dominance came in the 1990s. Other than that the series - which has been variously called the "Aggie-Eagle Classic," or the "Turkey Day Classic" back in the old days when hundreds of arch-rival college teams faced off on Thanksgiving Day - has been pretty even.
NCCU has had the best of it of late, winning the last three meetings all by less than a touchdown.
That includes last season's contest at Charlotte's classic old American Legion Memorial Stadium, when the Eagles hung on to win 28-27 after All-America quarterback Stadford Brown's career was ended by a broken collarbone.
The Aggies rallied from a 21-0 deficit to pull within 28-26 with just under 10 minutes left, when Coach Lee Fobbs decided to go for the conversion kick instead of trying for the two points. Alonzo Lee is now A&T's head coach.
Rison is hoping for a little déjà vu on Saturday - last season A&T came into the game 2-3 after breaking an interminable losing streak, while the Eagles were, yes, 0-4. With Appalachian State on the schedule next week, the three-week slice of the schedule everyone saw coming is a very tough assignment for NCCU
"We fit them in where we can fit them in, and we're just going to keep play them one at a time," Rison said at his weekly press event. "Nobody ever said this process was going to be easy and it's not easy.
"Coach Lee has done a tremendous job. They are without a doubt an improved football team. They're 2-2 and they've won and we haven't won, so their outlook is a little bit different than ours. They've got an opportunity to say 'We're going to be 3-2 and we're playing our rivals and we're going to feel good about ourselves.' We're just trying to get a win right now, and the most important thing on our agenda is just to win a football game. It will have tremendous carryover for us, and the kids will understand that all the progress we've made truly is progress."
One Eagle who has had particular success against the Aggies has been free safety Jeffery Henderson, who returned that interception 83 yards against the Blue Devils to help make the score 21-14 in the second quarter. Henderson's other biggest career play was at Aggie Stadium in his first meeting with A&T, a 72-yard interception return that turned out to produce the clinching points in a 27-22 NCCU victory.
"Since I've been here, the big hype is around the Aggie-Eagle Classic," Henderson said. "I had people telling me last week 'If you don't win the (Duke) game, you'd better win (the A&T) game.' I know this game is really big. For the students it's bigger than really the Bull City Classic. It was big for me as a freshman when I got the interception. I didn't even know how big the rivalry was until after that game."