It is a most circuitous route for NC Central to the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference championship and a spot in the Celebration Bowl.
To earn a spot in Atlanta next month, NCCU must go on Saturday to southside Virginia, where Norfolk State is poised to put up a road block. And with all there is on the line for the Eagles (7-2, 3-1 MEAC), Coach Trei Oliver is keeping his sights squarely on the immediate task.
“I guarantee you that we’re not running around talking about ring sizes and Celebration Bowl and all that. We’re not,” Oliver says. “We’re talking about what do we have to do to come up with a game plan to beat these folks by one point. That’s it.”
NC Central set course for this weekend by taking out Howard, 50-21, in the Homecoming game. And has been the case for much of the season, the Eagles soared on the strength of quarterback Davius Richard. He threw for 281 yards and three touchdowns against the Bison, and he ran for 104 yards and two more scores. He has now accounted for 31 scores through nine games.
“I thought the (Richard’s) decision-making was very, very good this week,” Oliver says.
“So, obviously, it’s a blessing to have him and he’s a joy to watch play,” he adds. “I’m glad we don’t have to play against him.”
That task lies with the Spartans (1-8, 1-2 MEAC), who have struggled the entire season and ran into more trouble in a 49-24 spanking by North Carolina A&T. Jalen Fowler threw for 254 yards and two touchdowns against Norfolk State, and Bhayshul Tuten continued his running rampage, rushing for 117 yards and three touchdowns.
Meanwhile, Norfolk State’s quarterbacks, Otto Kuhns and Jaylen Adams threw four interceptions, and the Spartans ran for just 112 yards. Adams had 69 rushing yards himself. The Spartans score fewer points and give up more than anyone in the MEAC. They’re next to last in rushing offense and last in rushing defense.
Despite the numbers, Oliver isn’t sleeping on the Spartans and he’s not about to underestimate them.
“I know they have some growing pains over there and they have plenty of talent,” he says. “They kind of look like us last year. So we’re going to have to come and play, and again, it’s about us. We don’t worry about the other teams. We just have to come in here and handle our business.”
And given it’s a matchup between two HBCUs, the game wouldn’t be complete without the obligatory connections between head coaches. Norfolk State’s Dawson Odums played football at NC Central in the 1990s when it was a CIAA school. Oliver and Shaw Head Coach Adrian Jones were his teammates But the remembrances about their playing days will have to wait until after the weekend, one in which the Eagles hope to be throwing a party.
“Well, they know our staff,” he says, referring to offensive coordinator Matt Leone, who was on Odums’ staff when he coached at Southern. “So, we are established, really familiar with each other, We just have to make sure that we execute and our guys are focused and locked in. So, it’s gonna be about execution.”