Norfolk, Va. - Norfolk State fought back from a 17-point fourth-quarter deficit to twice cut the North Carolina Central lead to one score, but the Eagles held on for a 34-31 victory in the MEAC opener for both teams on Saturday afternoon at Dick Price Stadium.
The loss was the third in a row for the Spartans (1-3, 0-1), while NCCU (2-2, 1-0) won its second straight.
The Eagles took a 27-10 lead after Malcolm Bell's 11-yard touchdown pass to Jalen Wilkes with 2:38 left in the third quarter. But the Spartans fought back with a vengeance in the fourth quarter.
Quarterback Greg Hankerson scored on a 4-yard TD run to get NSU within 27-17 with 14:50 left in the final stanza. On the ensuing kickoff, NCCU Mike Jones muffed a short kick by Cameron Marouf and Spartan defender Aaron Chandler recovered. That set up a 24-yard field goal by Marouf with 13:42 left to play, cutting NCCU's lead to 27-20.
The Spartans kept coming. After the change of possession, Bell's pass was intercepted by NSU linebacker Kyle Archie, who was tackled at the Eagles' 18-yard line. But the Spartans again had to settle for a field goal, this time a 23-yard boot by Marouf that cut the lead to 27-23 with 11:23 remaining in the game.
The Eagles regained some breathing room when Bell helped engineer a 10-play, 72-yard scoring drive on NCCU's next possession. Bell capped the drive with a 6-yard scoring run, and the PAT stretched the NCCU lead to 34-23 with 6:25 to play.
NSU made one last push. After the team's traded punts, Hankerson directed a seven-play, 71-yard touchdown drive which he capped with a 25-yard scoring pass to Marcus Taylor. Hankerson passed to James Church for the two-point conversion, bringing the Spartans within 34-31 with 1:41 left in the game.
The Spartans attempted the onside kick, but Bo Lomax's high-bounding kick was recovered by NCCU and the Eagles ran out the clock.
NCCU jumped out to a 10-0 lead in the first quarter after a 25-yard field goal by Brandon McLaren and Ramone Simpson's 1-yard TD run. The teams traded touchdowns in the second quarter. NSU fullback Larry Bishop scored on a 1-yard dive with 12:41 left in the period, capping an 81-yard, 10-play Spartan drive.
Simpson scored on a 17-yard TD run with 7:39 left. That came one play following a Spartan fumble forced by Antonio Brown and recovered by the Eagles' Cyrus Stanback.
The Spartans made it a one-score game going into the half as Marouf hit a 19-yard field goal to cut NSU's deficit to 17-10 with 12 seconds left in the second quarter.
The Eagles scored all 10 points in the third quarter. McLaren made it 20-10 thanks to a 29-yard field goal with 10:26 left in the period. Later in the stanza, Bell gave NCCU its largest lead on the 11-yard scoring strike to Wilkes.
A matchup of two of the MEAC's top quarterbacks saw both signal-callers play well. Bell completed 18-of-26 passes for 196 yards while also rushing for 77 yards for the Eagles. He ran for one score and threw for one. NSU's Hankerson completed 16-of-31 passes for 186 yards and one score. He also ran for a team-high 79 yards and one score.
Simpson finished with 97 rushing yards and two scores for the Eagles, who tallied 401 yards of offense.
Gerard Johnson added 69 rushing yards on 10 carries for NSU. Taylor notched career highs of eight receptions for 94 yards and a TD for the Spartans.
Linebacker T.C. Livingston made a game and career-high 15 tackles for NSU.
The Spartans host Howard for a 2 p.m. game next Saturday.