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Prairie View A&M’s quick start proves too much for N.C. Central in MEAC/SWAC Challenge

SWAC gets bragging rights as Panthers’ Jalen Morton and Dawonya Tucker shine in 40-24 win

Football games are hardly fought, and won, at the conference commissioners’ table, but don’t tell that to Dennis E. Thomas and Charles McClelland.

Friendly pregame banter between the two leading men representing the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) and Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) during Saturday’s Commissioners Reception at Atlanta’s swanky Solis Hotel’s rooftop lounge hardly seemed the kind of chatter befitting guys who didn’t suit up or even call plays.

For Thomas, MEAC/SWAC Challenge weekend is his time to walk around with a definitive swagger, and it’s understandable. His conference holds a convincing 9-3 advantage over the SWAC in the early-season matchup of conferences, and the former offensive lineman at Alcorn State isn’t shy to let everyone know.

“I’d like to welcome SWAC commissioner McClelland to the 2018 MEAC/SWAC Challenge,” Thomas told local VIPs and Atlanta dignitaries during the reception. “But the pleasantries end tonight — the MEAC will take home the trophy.”

When it was McClelland’s turn to speak, the newly minted commissioner — whose appointment was official Saturday, Sept. 1 — was quick to apologize to his wife for engaging in what might sound like trash talk. “Honey, I apologize,” McClelland said as he looked toward his wife, Ashlee. “I know it’s my first day, and my first big event as commissioner, but we’re not here to get a participation trophy. We here to win.”

For a half, it seemed McClelland’s words (and certainly his enthusiasm) had rubbed off on Prairie View A&M, which came out like gangbusters against North Carolina Central, jumping out to a surprising 23-7 halftime lead in the 14th installment of the MEAC/SWAC Challenge in front of a mostly stunned crowd at “Pete” Petit Field at Georgia State University.

The Panthers made a mockery of the Eagles’ defense, compiling more than 400 yards of total offense (178 passing and 236 rushing) in that critical first half. Led by quarterback Jalen Morton and running back Dawonya Tucker, the offense clicked on all cylinders, capitalizing for points on all four of its red-zone opportunities.

Quarterback Jalen Morton of Prairie View A&M heads to the end zone on his first-quarter touchdown run in Sunday’s MEAC/SWAC Challenge between the Panthers and N.C. Central.

Photo by Kayla MaDonna/ESPN Images

Eric Dooley, who was introduced as the Panthers’ 33rd head coach last December after spending four seasons as offensive coordinator at Grambling, was hardly surprised with his team’s quick start and eventual finish: a 40-24 win for the SWAC.

“I wasn’t actually surprised. That’s what I expected,” said Dooley, who during his time at Grambling led the Tigers to three consecutive Western Division titles and two SWAC championships. “That’s our effort; that’s how we practice. Of course, I’m always going to be the one to say it wasn’t fast enough, and we have some things to work on and go back to the drawing board.

“We can’t be satisfied. We have a little more work to do.”

Even though the Eagles had the ball for three minutes more in that first stanza and had zero first-half turnovers, quarterback Chauncey Caldwell could hardly find his rhythm, even though he’d finish the game throwing for 269 yards and two touchdowns for NCCU (0-1).

The halftime talk from interim Eagles head coach Granville Eastman must have been blazing because that’s how Central came out, scoring 14 unanswered points to open the third quarter and making what seemed a surefire blowout look like a ballgame. The Panthers added a 24-yard Zach Elder field goal with 1:11 to go in the third to slow the Eagles’ momentum, making the score 26-21 — but NCCU would add a field goal of its own to end the third, making the score 26-24 to start the fourth. That’s as close as the Eagles would get.

Morton found Markcus Hardy wide-open in the end zone to give Prairie View a 33-24 lead with 8:55 remaining in the game. Ju’Anthony Parker made an interception on NCCU’s next drive, and one play later, Dawonya Tucker, who rushed for a career-high 267 yards and a touchdown, ran up the middle for a 50-yard touchdown.

“We have to focus on one thing,” Morton, who was 19-of-35 passing for 264 yards and two scores and was voted the game’s Most Valuable Player, said after the game. “Our playing style is PV style — we have playmakers and they make plays. Our motto is ‘spot it,’ and when we do that, we’re good,” added Morton, who also rushed for 72 yards and a TD.

The Eagles hardly looked like the team that’s gone 31-15 the past four years, including three consecutive MEAC championships and a Celebration Bowl nod. But Eastman, who accepted the interim head-coaching role after Jerry Mack left to be the offensive coordinator at Rice, was matter-of-fact in his critique of his team.

“First of all, I told my team that I love them,” Eastman told reporters. “Not knowing how this was going to turn out, but I’m a fighter and they’re fighters. I told them that all of our goals, in-conference and for the season, are right there for us to achieve, but we have to eliminate the mistakes. I think they realize that as well.”

When pressed about the Celebration Bowl, which will pit the conference champs against each other in Atlanta in three months, Eastman was quick to tell reporters to slow their roll while offering a hint of what might come.

“We’re not gonna look that far ahead yet,” said Eastman, an immigrant from Guyana who grew up in Canada. “We know there’s a good possibility that we’ll see this team again. They’ve got a great program, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re back here in December.”

Mark W. Wright is the director of special projects for The Undefeated. Born in England and raised in Jamaica, He sends referees running for the hills when they see the soccer dad (and Howard University alum) coming.