by Mike Potter
N.C. Central wasn't joking when the Eagles' 2009 football schedule was announced.
The Eagles are in their third season as a member of Division I's Football Championship Subdivision after a long run in NCAA Division II, and the schedule reflects a total change in the competition philosophy.
There were lots of "oohs" and "ahhs" when the slate came out including huge new challenges with cross-town rival Duke and in-state FCS superpower Appalachian State. But there was a third game in that category in Liberty - the school founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell (pictured) - and that's what the Eagles will be facing on the road Saturday night at 7 at Williams Stadium. It's the teams' first meeting, as their paths never crossed back when the schools were both in Division II.
If NCCU manages to win it probably won't be considered the most significant win in school history, but it would probably be the biggest upset.
Danny Rocco's Flames are the two-time defending champions of the Big South Conference, and finished 10-2 last season. They're ranked No. 24 in the FCS coaches' poll after keeping West Virginia interested into the fourth quarter in a 33-20 loss in their season opener.
"We have to play mistake-free football." NCCU coach Mose Rison said. "The team that has the fewest turnovers will have the best chance to win.
"It's Liberty's home opener, so they'll be hungry and excited. We've got to keep the big plays off the scoreboard, and we'll have a chance to win that football game."
Liberty's starting quarterback is senior Tommy Beecher, a transfer whose last job was as the starter at South Carolina. He was good enough to bounce sophomore Mike Brown out of the starting spot, and all wideout Brown did last week was come up with 271 all-purpose yards and earn Big South offensive player of the week honors.
N.C. Central (0-1) vs. Liberty (0-1)
Saturday, 7 p.m., Williams Stadium in Lynchburg, Va.
Audio: WRJD-AM 1410, www.nccueaglepride.com, WFJA-FM 105.5
Key stats ...
NCCU: Team scoring 24.0 to opponents' 31.0 avg. Rushing 152.0 to 86.0. Passing 132.0 to 140.0. Individual leaders - (rush) Tim Shankle 10-58 0 TD, (pass) Michael Johnson 9-21-2-123 2 TD, (receive) Earthan Ward 4-59 0 TD, (tackle) Calvin Hillie 7 tackles, 1 forced fum.
Liberty: Team scoring 20.0 to 33.0. Rushing 89.0 to 195.0. Passing 210.0 to 243.0. Individual leaders - (rush) Aldreakis Allen 10-36 0 TD, (pass) Tommy Beecher 22-33-1-210 1 TD, (receive) Mike Brown 11-157 1 TD, (defense) Wes Cheek 8 tackles.
Best message board tidbit on the game: From Rich Eagle at www.onnidan.com: "This will be a real test for NCCU. Liberty U is ranked #24 in the FCS ranking this week. As a reference SCSU was ranked # 16, App. State #2, and U. of Richmond was ranked # 1 after defeating Duke on Saturday. This is a good opportunity to see how we stack in our third year of D-I football. The Flames played well against West Virginia on Saturday. Let's strap up, Eagles."
NCCU will win if: The Eagles play a near-perfect football game, with QB Michael Johnson playing the best game of his short career and the defense getting several sacks of the Flames' Tommy Beecher. In a victory the Eagles rush for 125 yards, produce more passing yardage than the home team, have a turnover margin of +2 and never give the Flames possession within the NCCU 40.
Liberty will win if: The Flames just play a decent football game and don't think of the Eagles as an upstart opposition. If they lock down NCCU's running game and force Johnson to run around the backfield all night, it should be enough for a victory.
Can a group of Soaring Eagles douse Falwell's Flames? It's going to be a tough one. Once again, Liberty was playing a big-time opponent on the road at WVU on Saturday and didn't come close to getting embarrassed. NCCU isn't as big an underdog as it was at James Madison or Cal Poly last season, but more like at Western Kentucky two years ago or against SWAC teams on the road before Rod Broadway came in and turned the program around six years ago. It's not like they're playing at Florida, but the Eagles have to play their collective hearts out and backsides off and hope for some breaks. Chances of victory are somewhere between one and five percent.
Players to watch ...
NCCU: #11 LB Donald Laster, #15 QB Michael Johnson, #50 LB Teryl White, #83 WR Will Scott.
Liberty: #7 Tommy Beecher, #10 Mike Brown, #35 LB Wes Cheek, #41 DE Terry Adams.
Injury report ... NCCU: None reported. Liberty: None reported.
Vegas line: None. Dunkel Index says Liberty by 42.
Score prediction: Liberty 38, NCCU 21.