N.C. Central won’t play for a chance to win a fourth consecutive MEAC title when it travels to Greensboro next week to play rival N.C. A&T.
For about 16 seconds, though, the Eagles put themselves in a position to make next Saturday’s contest a winner-take-all bout for the second straight season. When freshman quarterback Chauncey Caldwell hit sophomore Xavier McKoy for a four-yard score to give N.C. Central a 10-7 lead over Bethune-Cookman, O’Kelly-Riddick Stadium erupted. Maybe a little too much.
The Eagles were called for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, as the players on the field got a little too excited celebrating Caldwell’s pass to McKoy. The penalty would be assessed on the kickoff, but all N.C. Central had to do was rely on its defense to keep the Wildcats out of the end zone for eight more seconds.
But the flag meant the Wildcats would get a little extra room to work with. Keavon Mitchell, who had a few drops during the contest, returned the ball 15 yards to the N.C. Central 48. After Larry Brihm’s pass attempt on first down fell incomplete, the Eagles were five seconds away from heading to Greensboro with their championship dreams still alive. Five seconds, as it turned out, was more than enough time for the Wildcats. Brihm got out of the pocket and threw a bomb toward the end zone, the ball seeming to hang in the air forever. After a few tips, the ball fell into the waiting arms of Mitchell with no time remaining on the clock. The Eagles fell to the turf in disbelief, once again their dreams taken away from them, at home, by the Wildcats.
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Two years ago, Bethune-Cookman edged North Carolina Central 28-26 after the officials ruled that Dorrell McClain didn’t cross the goal line and the Wildcats blocked a field goal attempt on the next play. Because of that game, the Eagles had to share a MEAC title in 2015. This year, N.C. Central won’t even get that. In a season where they’ve dodged more bullets than Neo in “The Matrix,” the ball finally didn’t bounce in favor of the Eagles. After the game, head coach Jerry Mack put things in perspective.
“Sometimes it’s just not your night, it’s just not really meant to be,” Mack said he told his team. “I don’t really know why this happened, but kudos to Bethune-Cookman. At the end of the day, they executed one more play than we did and they found a way to win the football game.”
N.C. Central has lived through this nightmare before. The Eagles know the feeling of celebration one second and heartbreak the next. Last season in Atlanta at The Celebration Bowl, the Eagles were one play away from tying the game after a Malcolm Bell to Quentin Atkinson touchdown made it a one-point game. But the extra point was blocked, and the Eagles suffered heartbreak in Atlanta. Both of those plays were preceded by a celebration penalty. Both times Mack said that didn’t make any difference.
“It’s frustrating, but we did have an opportunity after the penalty to get our defense on the field,” Mack said. “We just didn’t come through with the stop at the end of the game.”
On the Wildcats’ final possession, Mack wanted to flush Brihm out the pocket, and that’s exactly what happened. Brihm, listed at 5’10, took a shot, and when the ball finally came down, it rested in the waiting arms of Mitchell, who caught just two passes for the game. There was no question it was a catch, officially putting the Eagles through a full range of emotions in 16 seconds.
“It’s tough,” Mack said. “Not necessarily for me, but for our guys. They did every single thing we asked them to do, and that’s part of the disappointment when you lose a game like that. That’s probably one of the worst ways to lose a game.”
On paper, N.C. Central dominated the game. The Eagles out gained the Wildcats (6-4, 5-2) 307-178. And normally one of the most penalized teams in the MEAC, the Eagles were flagged just six times for 49 yards, while Bethune-Cookman, the only MEAC team Mack has a losing record against (1-3), was penalized eight times for 100 yards. The Wildcats only got into N.C. Central territory twice – once when Eagles’ senior Jacen Murphy muffed a punt, the second time on Mitchell’s kickoff return. When they were in position to make a play, the Wildcats made it happen; the Eagles left wondering how they allowed it.
“It’s tough because you have no answer as a coach,” Mack said. “You really have no answer to why these guys lost the game. The ball just bounced their way, and sometimes that happens in the game of football.”