The MEAC/SWAC Challenge is in the books ending with the North Carolina Central Eagles pulling off the 23-14 win over the Alcorn State Braves.
Both teams returned to the football field for the first time in over 600 days coming back from two entirely different seasons.
While Alcorn State (0-1) was coming back looking to make a statement in an effort to claim its third SWAC championship in four years, North Carolina Central (1-0) was looking to turn its program around after recording its second straight losing season.
After absorbing an opposing opening drive that ended with an Alcorn State touchdown, the Eagles kept their composure outplaying the Braves on both ends to get the upset win.
Here are five takeaways from Saturday’s MEAC/SWAC Challenge.
1. North Carolina Central is legit
Going into Saturday’s game, North Carolina Central was already considered to be a favorite to become MEAC champions. Now that the game has concluded, they proved that this is true and then some.
The Eagles are good enough to win the MEAC, get to the Celebration Bowl and pull off an upset just like they did last night.
The knock on North Carolina Central in 2019 was its inability to put the ball in the end zone, finishing last in the MEAC in total touchdowns and recording the second-lowest scoring average.
Going up against not only one of the top teams in the SWAC, but one of the top teams in FCS football, NCCU put up a great performance on the offensive end, recording 391 total yards and scoring two rushing touchdowns (both by quarterback Davius Richard).
On defense, the Eagles limited an Alcorn State offense that averaged over 33 points per game in 2019 to just 14 points. Then, the Eagles’ special teams joined the party with Brandon Codrington scoring on a 77-yard punt return.
Another reason NCCU is going to be dangerous is that there is room for improvement from this game. Like the Braves, the Eagles also made some crucial penalties that put their opponents in a position to take advantage.
The Eagles also had trouble finishing drives where they were able to move the ball downfield effectively. They had several chances to shift the momentum in their favor with big plays but ended up stalling; unable to turn those plays into points.
2. Alcorn State is not the SWAC West favorite
While Alcorn State will absolutely be a player in the SWAC West division and could very well bounce back from this loss and win the division, the Braves should not be the overwhelming favorite.
Alcorn State has one of the top offenses — not just in the SWAC — but in FCS. It was on the offensive end where the Braves struggled Saturday, namely 2019 SWAC Offensive Player of the Year Felix Harper.
While Harper made some very good plays throwing for two touchdowns and keeping possessions alive with his feet, he made a ton of mental mistakes that kept him and his team from winning this game.
Whether it be overthrowing his receivers or struggling to hold on to the ball, Harper seemed out of sorts after scoring on the opening drive. Like North Carolina Central, the Braves also were called for crucial penalties that shifted the momentum the Eagles’ way.
The offensive line did not do a good job of protecting Harper from defensive pressure forcing him to move out of the pocket before the play could develop.
If the Braves do not shake off the rust and get back to what made them so dominant in 2019, teams like the Southern Jaguars or UAPB Golden Lions will surely take advantage and possibly in their division.
3. Felix Harper is still a Player of the Year candidate
Despite all the negativity that came from the game for both teams, it must be remembered that these two teams had not stepped on the field for a game in over 600 days.
Even with all the mistakes Felix Harper made, he and his offense also made some excellent plays throughout the game particularly with the running game along with tailback Niko Duffey.
Harper’s opening drive showed that he was capable of putting together big drives and making big plays through the air to get his team in the end zone.
As the game progressed and the Eagles began to collapse the pocket, Harper did well by remaining composed and making plays with his feet.
Meanwhile, Duffey continuously gave the offense a boost turning normal runs into big plays running through tacklers for big gains.
Ultimately, Harper will need his offensive line to step up to provide the protection he needs and he will need to take care of the football. Fumbling was a problem for the Braves in 2019, famously losing five fumbles in a game against Mississippi Valley State.
This one bad game from Harper will not deter him from being in the conversation for SWAC Offensive Player of the Year, the Walter Payton Award or the Black College Football Player of the Year Award.
4. Davius Richard will be in the mix for MEAC Offensive Player of the Year
While Isaiah Totten rightfully received much recognition coming into the fall season, being selected to the All-MEAC Preseason team and the Black College Football Player of the Year award watch list, Davius Richard deserves the same attention.
Entering his sophomore season, Richard received little to no recognition from fans and pundits compared to other HBCU quarterbacks.
He was not selected to the All-MEAC Preseason team, the Walter Payton Award watch list, or the Black College Football Player of the Year award watch list.
Fueled by being overlooked, Richard played incredible for the Eagles scoring each of their two rushing touchdowns while also connecting on big throws to move the ball downfield keeping possessions alive.
This was a statement performance for Richard against an Alcorn State team that has appeared in the last six SWAC championship games (not including the spring season).
If Davius Richard was not on your radar prior to this season, hopefully, his performance last night will change that.
5. Don’t sleep on the MEAC
In years past, the MEAC was dominated by the North Carolina A&T Aggies, claiming each of the last three MEAC championships and four in the last five years along with winning in all four of their Celebration Bowl appearances.
However, with the Aggies, along with the Hampton Pirates, Florida A&M Rattlers, and the Bethune-Cookman Wildcats all leaving the conference in the past four years, fans speculated how the MEAC would recover from such losses.
If that wasn’t enough, North Carolina Central came into this game as massive underdogs against the 2019 SWAC champion Alcorn State who was returning to claim their crown after sitting out the spring season.
North Carolina Central persevered through all that adversity, pulling off the upset showing that they and the MEAC will not go away that easily.
This game showed that the MEAC, while thin, still has talent that is good enough to get a win on any given night.
Not only does this win create excitement to see how the Eagles will build from this point on, but now eyes will be on their MEAC competitors to see if they will be able to feed off the energy brought on by the Eagles’ win.
No matter what happens from here on out, sleeping on the MEAC going forward is not a wise decision.