by Mike Potter
N.C. Central is going to get a very big test on the football field on Saturday.
The first half of the Eagles' season was a disappointment. NCCU, facing such monumental challenges as games at Liberty, Appalachian State and Duke, was competitive at times in those conteste but saved its worst play for the weaker opponents.
So the start was 0-6, and at that point Coach Mose Rison challenged his team to win its last five games. NCCU has rolled a couple of inferior opponents at home to improve to 2-6, but the next one is the hard part.
The Eagles will visit Old Dominion (7-2) in the Monarchs' sold-out 2 p.m. homecoming contest at Foreman Field in Norfolk, Va.
Monarchs coach Bobby Wilder has undoubtedly put together a fine program in two seasons at the helm, including a time last season when the team held practice every day but there were no games and everybody was redshirted.
ODU clearly knows what it's doing in putting together winning programs, and one of the first things a winning program has to do is win.
The schedule has assured that will happen this season.
The Monarchs have beaten a pair of CIAA teams in Chowan and Virginia Union, beaten two non-scholarship Division I-FCS teams in Jacksonville and Campbell and lost to the other one (Fordham), and lost to a Monmouth team that limits itself to 30 scholarships.
The only teams ODU has played on NCCU's "level" have been Presbyterian and Savannah State. Those two teams have two wins between them, and those were against Edward Waters and Livingstone.
NCCU is two special-teams plays in overtime away from being 4-4, and an argument could be made that the Eagles have more talent than anyone else on the Monarchs' schedule. I'm not criticizing the schedule - remember that NCCU set one up to go 6-4 in its first season after leaving the CIAA.
"I'm very pleased with our progress," Rison said. "I expected us to be where we are. We just let a couple of games get away from us early and we can't do anything about that now.
"I've said all along the defense is the strength of this football team. We've got speed, we've got size, we're physical, we tackle well, we run to the ball, our corners can play man coverage. ... We've grown up, and I don't think we're going to take the field and be in awe of anybody. It bodes really well for us down the line. We're going to have some confidence since we did win the last two ball games. Going on the road is not going to affect us the way it used to affect us. I expect us to have confidence and play well now."
N.C. Central (2-6) vs. Old Dominion (7-2)
[2 p.m. Saturday, Foreman Field, Norfolk, Va.]
Audio: WRJD-AM 1410, nccueaglepride.com
Key stats ...
NCCU: Team scoring 25.1 to opponents' 29.4. Rushing 104.2 to 168.4. Passing 190.2 to 154.1. Individual leaders - (rush) Tim Shankle 135-544 6 TD, (pass) Michael Johnson 102-183-7-1334 11 TD, (receive) Will Scott 30-495 5 TD, (tackle) Teryl White 46 with 2 sacks.
ODU: Team scoring 33.4 to 21.1. Rushing 73.1 to 185.7. Passing 176.9 to 248.0. Individual leaders - (rush) Thomas DeMarco 116-669 10 TD, (pass) DeMarco 11-209-3-619 18 TD, (receive) Reid Evans 36-485 2 TD, (tackle) Mychael McJunkins 66 with 1 int. 1 fum. rec.
Best message board tidbit on the game:
BIGGRAY on www.onnidan.com: "If ODU had our schedule - what do you think their record would be? Would they have beaten Hampton, Morehead St., A&T, App. St, Duke or Liberty? Just curious. I will be at the game on Saturday. Yes, we do need to beat them. We really, really do, for a lot of reasons. Let's go Eagle Nation.
NCCU will win if ... The Eagles can play the kind of defense they have played in most games this season. They need to win the turnover and time-of-possession battles. They need to protect quarterback Michael Johnson, who must have a good game. And they need to keep Monarch quarterback Thomas DeMarco from putting on a show.
ODU will win if ... DeMarco gets enough protection to evade the NCCU rush, and the defense keeps the Eagles from controlling the football. ODU will have to keep Michael Johnson from getting comfortable.
Can the Soaring Eagles dethrone the brand-new Baby Monarchs? Of course they can, if they just forget about the records and believe they can be a better football team. It's the toughest step of Rison's challenge to win the season's final five games, but it's doable if the Eagles can keep the crowd out of the game.
Players to watch ...
NCCU: #11 LB Donald Laster, #15 QB Michael Johnson, #50 DL Teryl White, #83 WR Will Scott.
ODU: #4 WR Reid Evans, #12 DB Craig Wilkins, #17 QB Thomas DeMarco, #44 LB Mychael McJunkins.
Injury report ...
NCCU: No significant injuries.
ODU: DL Eddie McClam (knee) questionable.
Vegas line: None. Dunkel says ODU by 12 ½.
Score prediction: NCCU 28, Old Dominion 27.