by Mike Potter
It's a game that has gone by many names in the past, like the "Aggie-Eagle Classic" for its long run at Raleigh's Carter-Finley Stadium and the "Turkey Day Classic" back when it and every other big college football game in the country seemed to be played on Thanksgiving Day.
N.C. Central and North Carolina A&T will meet at Aggie Stadium on Saturday night at 6, marking the second time the teams have faced off in Greensboro in three years.
Although parents and children and husbands and wives and certainly neighbors and co-workers who are usually rational people may start snapping at each other the week of the football game, it's not even a conference game yet.
It will be next season, when the Eagles will be officially football-playing members of the MEAC (they'll be eligible for conference titles in 2011-12).
The last several meetings - NCCU has won three straight in the series, all by fewer than six points - certainly stick in the craw of everyone who wears Aggie Blue and Gold. It's just as bad as for a UNC fan to endure a losing streak to Duke or an N.C. State fan to deal with several losses to the Tar Heels or for one side or another to have a losing streak in the Cal-Stanford or Army-Navy series in which NCCU mentor Mose Rison has participated as an assistant coach.,
"I can only speak for us, but we're going to come out and play on Saturday," Rison said. "The alumni message is 'You'd better make sure you understand what this game means to us.' I'm going to get this football team ready to play. It's a great atmosphere and we're glad to be a part of it."
The last meeting in Greensboro ended with a 27-22 NCCU victory after Eric Ray intercepted a pass in his own end zone in the closing seconds. Aggie players took exception to a celebration by a couple of dozen NCCU players at midfield, and a few punches were thrown before campus cops brought out the mace. If you blinked you missed the whole thing, but the aftermath turned into a media circus for the next few days with both schools' chancellors having to chime in.
Fortunately cooler heads prevailed, the series continued and A&T was among the unanimous voters to admit the Eagles to the MEAC.
"We don't plan to let anybody come into our back yard and make it happen," first-year A&T coach Alonzo Lee told the Greensboro News & Record. "That's already happened one time this year with Hampton, and we're not going to let it happen again. ... We're better because of the lessons we've learned."
The Eagles were also winless last season before they played A&T, ending that streak with a 28-27 victory at a nearly full Memorial Stadium in Charlotte.
"All of us know rivalry games can go either way regardless of the record," NCCU free safety Jeffery Henderson (pictured) said. "Either way, it's the same type of setup as last year. We're looking for a big win.
"Last year we got off to a pretty big start (a 21-0 lead) and got scared at the end after losing our quarterback. Losing Stadford Brown (ending the senior's career with a broken collarbone) in the first half was definitely a big blow to the team. This will come down to whichever team makes the fewest mistakes and turnovers. Our defense needs to play its best game."
N.C. Central (0-4) vs. North Carolina A&T (2-2)
[6 p.m. Saturday, Aggie Stadium, Greensboro]
A&T leads series 45-30-5
Audio: WRJD-1410, nccueaglepride.com.
Key stats ...
NCCU: Team scoring 14.5 to opponents' 32.0. Rushing 91.2 to 173.5. Passing 160.2 to 153.0. Individual leaders - (rush) Tim Shankle 65-281 1 TD, (pass) Michael Johnson 51-99-4-554 4 TD, (receive) Will Scott 16-154 2 TD, (tackle) Donald Laster 26, 1FF, 1 FR.
A&T: Team scoring 14.2 to opponents' 18.8. Rushing 137.0 to 154.5. Passing 113.2 to 130.0. Individual leaders - (rush) Mike Mayhew 52-270 3 TD, (pass) Carlton Fears 38-86-3-423 2 TD, (receive) Wallace Miles 9-78 1 TD, (tackle) Brandon Jackson 34.
Best message board tidbit on the game:
EagleMania2K on www.onnidan.com: "JBRob, you said that you can feel that Ole Aggie Spirit moving on the inside, and moving on the outside. I hate for you to say that is that Ole aggie spirit, when you know it's nothing but your nerves and probably some gas. Take a couple Alka-Seltzer, you will feel better. You Aggies are so scared that the EAGLES are coming and take over your stadium and bring a W back to Durham! When the game is over, listen for the song, "Over my head there's a victory in the air. There must be an eagle up there!!!!!"
NCCU will win if ... The Eagles can put together some of the good stretches they have shown against far superior opposition. If they were to play for four periods like they did in the first three quarters at Liberty or in the first half at Duke, that would be enough for a convincing victory. A&T still has a handful more scholarship players than the Eagles do, but depth has not been a problem in the last two meetings as the NCCU defense made huge defensive plays down the stretch.
A&T will win if ... The Aggies can just play the type of football they did in their first two wins, at Winston-Salem State and against Norfolk State. They have lost two straight games to pretty good teams, and Coastal Carolina is just clearly better than the Aggies are, the same way the Chanticleers were better than NCCU last season. Unlike last season when they went down 21-0, the Aggies need to play well early and keep their crowd into the game.
Can the Soaring Eagles cage those Blue Aggie Dogs? Well of course they can. They have beaten them three times in a row. The things NCCU has to watch out for are overconfidence and - this is something that can be said for the first time in school history - any hint of lack of focus on the game with the Aggies. Saturday's lopsided loss to Duke was an awfully high-profile football game, and it's important that the Eagles have the thing completely out of their systems.
What they're saying about the game:
Bonitta Best for The Triangle Tribune: "The best rivalry in the Football Championship Subdivision is this weekend in Greensboro. Both the Eagles and Aggies are coming off losses, and both badly need a victory - none more so than NCCU. A win for the Eagles would erase a lot of the pain of the season so far, especially for the fans. A win for the Aggies would erase three straight defeats to the Eagles. Particularly galling was (the last-second loss in 2007 in Greensboro) when NCCU linebacker Eric Ray intercepted the ball with 14 seconds left. The Eagles have to regroup and refocus now that the Gridiron Classic (against Duke) is over."
Players to watch ...
NCCU: #11 LB Donald Laster, #15 QB Michael Johnson, #50 LB Teryl White, #83 WR Will Scott.
A&T: #28 RB Mike Mayhew, #46 LB Andre Thornton, #51 DE Jarrell Herring, #94 DE Tyre Glasper.
Injury report ...
NCCU: None reported.
A&T: OG Thomas Hearn (ankle) probable, LB Jeremy Graham (hip) probable, DE Brandon Hill (hand) probable, DT Darius Dawkins (lower back) questionable.
Vegas line: None. Dunkel says A&T by 8.
Score prediction: NCCU 21, A&T 20.