A winning season is no longer a possibility for N.C. Central football, but the Eagles certainly have the opportunity to salvage some positives with a big finish.
Three of the last five games are at home for Mose Rison's club, and there's no Goliath monster looming on the schedule as was the case in road games at Liberty and Duke and Appalachian State.
Still, that doesn't mean the rest of the slate is a cupcake feast.
NCCU (0-6) returns home for the first time in four weeks on Saturday at 1:30 when Central Methodist (5-1) takes the field at O'Kelly-Riddick Stadium after its long bus trip from Missouri. When the schedule was made this one might have looked easy, but the Heart of America Athletic Conference visitors - the only other college team in America also known as the "Central Eagles" - are ranked No. 20 in the NAIA poll and have obviously learned how to win.
"They're pretty good," Rison said of Alan Dykens' CMU team. "They're an NAIA school, and those schools have a lot of flexibility from an eligibility standpoint. They can get the transfers. They have Division I athletes, now. This is not going to be a cakewalk. We're going to have to come and play. They know how to win. They've won five games and we haven't won a game."
Rison said his team has had a few problems which need to get corrected for the type of turnaround it had last season, when it won three of its last four - all at home - to finish 4-7.
"The offensive line has been our Achilles' heel," Rison said. "We need to give our young quarterback (Michael Johnson) some room with the running game so he doesn't have to throw the ball 35-40 times a game.
"Defensively, that game (at Appalachian State six days ago) was probably our poorest game of the year. We made a lot of mistakes last week in terms of assignment football. But I expect us to be errorless this weekend."
But he's hoping the home field, now surfaced in Mondoturf on which the Eagles are 0-1, will be a big bonus down the stretch.
"It sure is nice to know we're going to be able to play at home this weekend," he said. "But we need to get a win. We need to get one now. In a hurry. Fast. Quick. These kids deserve to win a football game, and I still like their attitudes.
"We're still excited. We're playing hard and the kids haven't thrown the towel in. The kids go out and play hard every Saturday, and that's all you can ask. Our goal now is to finish the season on a strong note. The football team is not discouraged. I'm not discouraged. We're getting better."
Quarterback Michael Johnson had a solid day in the 55-21 loss at ASU, after having probably the worst game of his NCCU career the week before at North Carolina A&T.
"I think we have to say the same thing we've been saying all along," Johnson said. "It's not the end of the season. You always want to finish on a positive note, and if we could have a five-game win streak that would be awesome."
Calvin Hillie, the linebacker who is now leading NCCU in tackles, had his most impressive career performance last week with a fumble recovery and an interception, and is looking for more against CMU
"It's really been up and down, the morale," Hillie said. "But we really have faith in ourselves that we can pull the season out. When we've played 'smaller' teams we just haven't had the killer mentality, and we need to get that.
"We're feeling pretty good playing at home. I think we should have a better game and a lot of energy."
N.C. Central (0-6) vs. No. 20 NAIA Central Methodist (5-1)
[1:30 p.m. Saturday, O'Kelly-Riddick Stadium]
Audio: WRJD-AM 1410, nccueaglepride.com
Key stats ...
NCCU: Team scoring 16.0 to opponents' 34.3. Rushing 76.7 to 212.3. Passing 173.8 to 169.2. Individual leaders - (rush) Tim Shankle 93-363 2 TD, (pass) Michael Johnson 73-138-7-870 7 TD, (receive) Will Scott 24-374 3 TD, (tackle) Calvin Hillie 39 with 1 int. 1 fum. rec. 1 forced fum.
CMU: Team scoring 30.2 to opponents' 22.3. Rushing 122.0 to 167.2. Passing 265.8 to 153.5. Individual leaders - (rush) Caleb Haynes 72-251 3 TD, (pass) Bryant Jackson 129-225-11-1522 13 TD, (receive) Reggie Hatton 27-532 7 TD, (tackle) Tim Cummins 55 with 1 sack.
Best message board tidbit on the game:
AB12 at onnidan.com. "Actually I played for Evangel (a HAAC foe which CMU beat 10-6 six days ago) before transferring to NCCU in the 90's (also played against Central Methodist), and Evangel might have run through the CIAA. Do NOT take this game lightly, (NCCU) Eagles."
NCCU will win if ... Johnson has a good game, the home team can move the ball consistently on the ground and the defense can introduce itself to Jackson a few times. It's likely that everyone on NCCU's schedule would beat everyone on CMU's schedule pretty easily, but there's no way to predict what happens in the trenches until the teams start to hit. If NCCU wins that battle, the losing streak ends.
CMU will win if ... The visiting Eagles can ruin Johnson's day and keep NCCU from gaining confidence in the running game. CMU will also have to keep NCCU's Teryl White from wreaking havoc in its backfield. The visitors have to win the turnover battle.
Can the Bull City boys prove who the real Central Eagles are? It's certainly doable. But the home team needs to win the battle of intangibles. NCCU's record is always good at O'Kelly-Riddick Stadium, and with an 0-6 record fan support is particularly important. On the other hand, CMU has learned how to win and the coaching staff can sell it to the team as its Super Bowl.
Players to watch ...
NCCU: #11 LB Donald Laster, #15 QB Michael Johnson, #50 DL Teryl White, #83 WR Will Scott.
CMU: #2 WR - Kevin Pike; #8 QB Bryant Jackson; #24 DB Antonio Brown; #34 RB Caleb Haynes.
Injury report ...
NCCU: No significant injuries.
CMU: None reported.
Vegas line: Yeah, right. Dunkel doesn't have anything either. Nor Sagarin.
Score prediction: NCCU 27, CMU 17