DURHAM, N.C. -- N.C. Central picked up its first win on Sept. 9, defeating Shaw 41-0 at home after a 60-7 loss to Duke the week before.

The Eagles, happy with the win but disappointed with their performance, had a bye week to address concerns after two lopsided games.

N.C. Central’s win over Shaw was tarnished by 35 combined penalties. Eagles’ head coach Jerry Mack said the calls ruined the flow of the game, with a flag being thrown almost every other play.

His team was flagged 16 times for 155 yards. That doubled the number of penalties N.C. Central had in its opener against Duke.

“It was a sloppy game,” Mack said. “Probably every penalty you can imagine was called. I’m very disappointed in the penalty outcome of the game from our team’s perspective.”

Cleaning up that sloppy play is priority No. 1 for the Eagles as they prepared to face MEAC foe South Carolina State in Durham on Saturday.

“We’ve got to get our discipline right,” Mack said. “We have said that time and time again and that’s really the focal point going forward. We can’t do things to beat ourselves. The game itself is already hard enough without us doing self-inflicted wounds and things like that.”

Defense ahead of offense

It’s not unusual for a defense to gel quicker than the offense early in the season. The Eagles had to replace six starters on offense this season, so it was to be expected. The defense pitched a shutout and controlled the line of scrimmage against Shaw. NCCU’s defensive front seven is the heart of the team led by senior defensive linemen Ja’Quan Smith, Antonio Brown and Roderick Harris and senior linebackers Reggie Hunter, De’Niro Laster and Tank O’Neal.

“I’m just proud of the way defense is playing when the ball is snapped,” Mack said. “I like the way our defensive front is flying around and pursuing the football. I really like the way our linebackers are playing.”

Laster (15 total stops) and Hunter (14) are the top two tacklers and Brown has three sacks through two games.

The offense, meanwhile, is still a work in progress.

“On the offensive side of the ball we are young up front, we’re young across the board at a lot of positions, we have a lot of first-year guys in the system,” Mack said. “We’re still trying to figure out how we’re going to gel going forward. It’s coming together, but we have to get a lot better, and fast, if we’re going to try and make a run at this thing and win conference games.”

Future stars?

One sign of how young the offense is, Mack only sends out three captains, all defensive players, for the pregame coin toss: Hunter, Brown, Smith.

The fourth-year coach is still waiting for an offensive leader to step up.

“Somebody is going to emerge before the season is over,” Mack said. “That’s how it always works. Right now we are kind of still looking for that guy to kind of separate from the pack.”

One offensive player Mack singled out was senior wide receiver David Miller, who has six catches and a touchdown after the first two games.

“David Miller continues to get better and better,” Mack said. “He’s not putting up big numbers, but I think as we get more comfortable in our system he will continue to be a real key factor going forward.”

Bye too soon?

Having a bye week early in the season gives the Eagles young offense a chance to practice and it gives the team the opportunity to clean up its penalties before beginning conference play against S.C State.

But Mack thinks the bye might be too early.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a perfect time,” Mack said. “I would like to get more games of experience under our belt before we went into conference play. We would love to have a couple of games under our belt against people who are similar to us, but it is what it is.”

A lopsided loss to ACC opponent Duke and a blowout win over Division II Shaw do not give Mack a true gauge of his team. But Eagles have had more time to prepare for the Bulldogs’ defense.

South Carolina State traditionally has one of the best defenses in the MEAC. Last season, the Bulldogs were No. 1 in total defense in the league, and linebacker Darius Leonard was named the MEAC Defensive Player of The Year for the second straight season. Leonard leads the conference in tackles, averaging 12 stops per game.

“It’s one of the most elaborate defenses we will see all year long with all the things they throw at you,” Mack said. “With our young offensive line and young at other positions, it’s going to take a lot to get them ready for that South Carolina State defense.”