Things were just starting to look up for N.C. Central.
After finishing 6-5 in 2012 and posting a winning record for the first time since 2007, head coach Henry Frazier appeared to have the Eagles back on the right track. But after Frazier was fired a week ago following an arrest for violating a domestic violence protection order, N.C. Central's season was dealt a major blow before it even began.
"I'm sure it's difficult for the team. It's difficult for the people he surrounded himself with," Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. "That part makes it sad.... I'm sure the university did what they felt that they had to do."
In his first of many uphill battles this season, interim head coach Dwayne Foster will have to take an FCS squad into an FBS environment when his Eagles take on Duke. At the Bull City Gridiron Classic, a day meant to celebrate the city of Durham, it is likely that Foster's N.C. Central team will have more on its mind when it plays its first game without its recently-departed leader.
But despite significant off-the-field distractions leading up to the Eagles' toughest game of the season, Foster has lauded his squad for its focus.
"The guys have been great. They've been working extremely hard," Foster said. "They've bought into our motto of staying focused on the task at hand."
When N.C. Central takes the field Saturday at Wallace Wade Stadium, all eyes will be on quarterback Jordan Reid. The fifth-year senior completed 62 percent of his passes last season, throwing for 1,594 yards, 13 touchdowns and 12 interceptions in 11 games.
But after splitting playing time with Matt Goggans early in the season, Reid took over as the full-time starter and got into a rhythm as the Eagles' season wore on.
"[N.C. Central] is an athletic team," Cutcliffe said. "I've looked at all their tapes from a year ago, particularly looking late in the year when their quarterback found himself. This team can throw the football."
In addition to a lack of depth, the primary concern for FCS teams playing against FBS competition is a mismatch in size across the field. With starting wide receivers DeMario Johnson and Adrian Wilkins standing at just 5-foot-8 and 5-foot-9, respectively, it appears the Blue Devils will dwarf the Eagles at most of the skill positions.
But up front, N.C. Central is actually bigger than Duke. Headlined by 6-foot-5, 360-pound right tackle Christopher Pressley, the Eagles' offensive line weighs an average of 315 pounds—the Blue Devils' offensive line weighs in at an average of 300 pounds.
"They have four returning guys that we know so far," Duke defensive end Justin Foxx said. "They're a big, physical team. They like to run the ball, they like to get after you and they're going to play hard until the whistle, so it's going to be a big challenge for us."
After being defeated by an average of 36 points during the first two installments of the Bull City Gridiron Classic, it appears one of N.C. Central's biggest goals is to prove that they can hang with an ACC team like Duke.
In last year's contest against the Blue Devils, the Eagles were able to hold the potent Duke offense in check for most of the first quarter before a punt return touchdown by Lee Butler put N.C. Central in a 10-point hole. The Eagles were able to put a touchdown drive together minutes later, but went on to surrender 31 unanswered points to the Blue Devils.
"I think we started off slow and got behind quite a bit early on," Frazier said. "Once the guys settled down, I think the guys put a lot of good stuff on film to be able to look at and be able to say that we deserve to be here and we deserve to play with these guys."