Last year’s loss haunts as NCCU preps for Bethune-Cook­man

The News & Observer - - Sports - BY JONAS POPE IV jpope@her­ald­sun.com

It’s fit­ting that Bethune-Cook­man was wear­ing all white last sea­son in Durham, be­cause the Wild­cats, es­pe­cially wide re­ceiver Keavon Mitchell, might as well be a ghost to Granville East­man and the North Carolina Cen­tral foot­ball team.

What Mitchell did has kept East­man, the Ea­gles’ head coach, up at night. East­man was the de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor last sea­son and served as the safeties coach.

Mitchell was on the re­ceiv­ing end of a des­per­a­tion pass from quar­ter­back Larry Brihm, who chucked the ball 48 yards in the air, land­ing per­fect­ing in the hands of Mitchell, who was able to sneak be­hind the NCCU sec­ondary and cra­dle the ball as he fell to the ground for the walk-off touch­down. BCU left Durham with a 13-10 win, ru­in­ing the Ea­gles chance to com­pete for a MEAC ti­tle the next week.

“It’s go­ing to keep me up for a long, long time,” East­man said on Tues­day in ref­er­ence to the hail mary play that started with six sec­onds on the clock. “Coaches, you know we have in­ter­nal bat­tles, I’m not go­ing to share right now, but you do sec­ond guess and think what could you have done dif­fer­ently and what not. You hope the mo­ment comes up again and you’re much bet­ter pre­pared.”

FI­NAL PLAYS

The Ea­gles will get their chance again at the Wild­cats when the two teams meet Thurs­day (7 p.m., ESPNU) in Day­tona Beach, Fla. This will be the 10th meet­ing be­tween the two schools, and the last two in Durham have come down to the fi­nal play. There was Mitchell’s catch last sea­son, and BCU blocked an 18-yard field goal at­tempt in 2015.

The crazy part about Mitchell’s catch, be­sides the fact that it’s rare the play ac­tu­ally works, is that the Wild­cats tried it the pre­vi­ous week against North Carolina A&T. The ball fell short against the Ag­gies, but that dry run gave Mitchell an idea of what he and Brihm needed to do to be suc­cess­ful if the op­por­tu­nity came again. They didn’t have to wait long.

“The game be­fore we didn’t have as much time and (Larry) threw it a lit­tle too early,” Mitchell said. “This time (against NCCU) I told him to wait and try to buy a lit­tle bit more time, as much as he could, then throw it. He did and it just hap­pened to fall in my hands.”

Mitchell, who leads the team this sea­son with 33 re­cep­tions for 401 yards and five scores, said he hasn’t watched the play much since last year, and he only talks about it when some­one on cam­pus brings it up. He re­mem­bers the look on the faces of the Ea­gles, es­pe­cially the se­niors, who were play­ing their fi­nal game in O’Kelly-Rid­dick Sta­dium.

“I re­mem­ber they had a lot of se­niors,” Mitchell said. “I know that hurt.”

MEAC RECORDS

East­man doesn’t have as many up­per­class­men this time around, which means there aren’t as many play­ers who have been around for the close bat­tles against the Wild­cats. The only play­ers on the cur­rent ros­ter who saw ac­tion in the 2015 nail-bit­ter were se­nior safety Da­vanta Reynolds, who started that sea­son as a red­shirt fresh­man, and backup cor­ner­back Ja­mar­cus Joyner. East­man says that could be a good or bad thing.

“If there’s a con­cern that I have, it’s that we have some new mem­bers to the party, so to speak, who re­ally don’t un­der­stand and they are fig­ur­ing this thing out game by game,” East­man said. “The game in the process is go­ing to let them know what this is all about. They are go­ing to have to learn it.”

The teams en­ter the con­test each with two loses in MEAC play, two of four teams with two league loses. BCU (5-5, 3-2), sit two spots ahead of the Ea­gles (4-4, 2-2) in the MEAC stand­ings. League lead­ing FAMU (5-1, MEAC) suf­fered its first con­fer­ence loss over the week­end to Howard, and East­man feels like there is an out­side shot at an­other crown. He says any­thing can hap­pen, and uses the 2015 sea­son, when there was a five-way tie be­tween two loss teams, for the ti­tle. The rest of the sea­son has to be treated like the play­offs East­man said.

“This path is sort of sim­i­lar,” East­man said. “It’s an up­hill bat­tle, we un­der­stand that, but there’s a lot to play for.”

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