It must be the gloves.
Hours before Saturday’s inaugural Cape Fear Classic against Shaw University, John Rich tweeted a photo of his bright white receiving gloves, a new pair he planned on debuting against the Bears.
After scoring the first three touchdowns of his career last week in Fayetteville, the University of North Carolina at Pembroke’s sophomore wideout added three more to his total — with high fashion to boot — as the Braves handled Shaw, 41-20, inside Legion Stadium in Wilmington.
“The offensive line blocked their butts off and Luke (Charles) threw me some pretty good balls,” Rich said. “We’ve got about nine different receivers that can make plays and that’s why we’re so dynamic. We’re playing good as a team.”
Rumored to become the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association’s newest member for what’s felt like several years, the Braves have done a little bit of everything in three games against the historically black Division II league this season.
They’ve upset defending conference champion Winston-Salem State in a nationally-televised opener, taken out Fayetteville State for a fifth consecutive year and, on Saturday, rattled the Bears’ secondary behind 361 yards passing and a record-tying five touchdowns from Luke Charles.
Talks of joining have simmered, but the Braves have made themselves a heckuva lot more attractive with their impressive 3-0 start and No. 17 national ranking according to D2Football.com’s latest poll.
And Rich’s emergence as the leader of UNCP’s dominance through the air is a big reason why.
Early success in the no-huddle, four-wide attack forced Shaw to back its defensive backs off the line of scrimmage and instead focus on keeping UNCP’s wideouts away from the boundary. Nonetheless, Rich gave the Braves a 10-point cushion in the second quarter after breaking a tackle on a bubble screen for an 18-yard score.
On UNCP’s next series, Rich’s 7-yard grab in the corner of the end zone capped a nine-play, 82-yard drive that seemed to deflate Shaw’s defense, a unit that ranked 14th nationally against the pass coming in allowing just 132.5 yards per game.
“We knew they were going to get after us a little bit, but our quarterback was extremely dialed in from the get go and really focused in on what we were trying to accomplish,” UNCP coach Pete Shinnick said.
The dagger came with 11 minutes left to play when Charles found Te’Vell Williams just inside the back pylon for a 42-yard touchdown following a Shaw fumble near midfield. UNCP’s 17-point fourth quarter is indicative of a ranked team on the road understanding what it takes to finish games.
“We demand success, expect to win and try to come out and play like that every week,” Charles said. “We won’t accept anything less.”
Despite 533 yards of total offense and 41 points, not all was well with the Braves’ offense however according to Shinnick.
If there’s one area UNCP’s veteran coach wants improvement in, it is his team’s ability to convert in short yardage situations. At times, spread offenses get stuck inside the red zone without much room to operate and that’s been the case with the Braves on the ground this season.
Midway through the third quarter Saturday, UNCP was stopped short on a 4th-and-goal zone read handoff from the 2 nursing a four-point lead. Sophomore Demetrius Fairley was met at the goal line on a second effort by Shaw’s Traneir Fraiser as the Bears took over.
Shinnick put his hands on his hips after another missed opportunity inside the 5 at points, something that happened twice in the opener against Winston-Salem State but didn’t come back to haunt the home team.
After 12 quarters of football, the Braves have 268 yards rushing and 62 of that came late in the fourth quarter Saturday on Rontonio Stanley’s scamper down the home sideline when UNCP was trying to melt the clock.
“We’ve got to keep getting better in a lot of areas and that’s including becoming a more physical football team,” Shinnick said. “I think we’re improving in that.”
Never one to worry about swaying poll voters in the Top 25, Shinnick says UNCP’s work on the field at the beach should be enough to strengthen the Braves’ case as the nation’s 17th-ranked team in Division II.
“We talk about rankings when they happen, then we move on and worry about playing better each week,” Shinnick said. “I don’t even know where we are to be honest with you and don’t really care for another nine weeks. Right now, our goal was to come in here and play a complete game, then take that momentum into our home game next week.”
Reach staff writer Brad Crawford at 910-272-6119 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MrPalmettoSDS.