PEMBROKE — One year removed from a .500 season, the University of North Alabama football team entered this year with playoff aspirations.
Yet three games in, the Lions were on the verge of watching the dream vanish.
Despite strong play following a season-opening win, UNA lost two straight games by a field goal.
“That put our backs against the wall,” UNA coach Bobby Wallace said earlier this week. “Obviously the urgency stepped up but at the same time we weren’t playing bad. We were still playing pretty good.”
The young team responded exactly as Wallace had hoped, winning the final seven games of the regular season to advance to the Division II playoffs, and beating Tuskegee 30-27 last week in the first round. The Lions are looking for number nine today when they face The University of North Carolina at Pembroke in the tournament’s second round at Grace P. Johnson Stadium.
It’s the program’s latest step as it rebuilds under Wallace, a Division II Hall of Famer who started his second stint at the school last season. He had previously coached at UNA from 1988 until 1997, which included Division II national championship wins in 1993, 1994 and 1995.
He returned to the program last season, inheriting three starters from 2011 and taking a team built largely around freshmen to a 5-5 record.
“We were going to rebuild the program mostly with the high school recruits, so we knew it was going to take time,” Wallace said, acknowledging that the playoff appearance came sooner than expected. “We’re a little bit further ahead (of schedule.)”
Behind the success is a team that doesn’t have many standouts statistically. There are no 1,000-yard rushers or receivers, the team opting instead to use multiple players in each role.
The run-first Lions are led by Lamonte Thompson with 693 rushing yards, followed by fellow back Chris Coffey at 595 and Luke Wingo at 460.
Wingo also has 1,787 passing yards, having completed 120 of 203 passes for 14 touchdowns. His three top receivers — Lee Mayhall, Jason Smith and Korey Jones — all have at least 425 receiving yards.
Wingo’s backup, Jacob Tucker, is the team’s fourth highest rusher and has played in 10 of 11 games.
“The players are very unselfish and I think that’s good because we do play so many people,” Wallace said. “We’re going to play four running backs, we’re going to play five or six receivers and we’re going to play two quarterbacks.
“They’re all capable of playing well and that’s why we play them.”
Defensively, the Lions have prepared for UNCP’s pass-heavy attack and have accumulated 23 total sacks this year and also led Division II with 24 interceptions.
Wallace said that between quarterback Luke Charles and his speedy receivers, his team will have its hands full.
“It’s going to be tough to slow them down,” he said.
Ultimately, the Lions just hope to keep the season alive.
“We came back and we started off 1-2 but both losses were go very good teams,” Wallace said. “It’s more about what’s ahead than what’s behind us.”
Division II playoffs: Second Round
No. 16 North Alabama
at Grace P. Johnson Stadium
Need to know:
The Braves played well enough during the regular season to earn a first round bye and had last weekend off. It’s given the team a chance to heal some injuries and work on some extra fundamentals. On the bye alone, the Braves have made it further than the 2009 team did and the aspirations are lofty for the first home playoff game in history. They’ll take on a North Alabama team that lost two straight early in the year but has recovered and won the last eight, including a first round win against Tuskegee on Saturday. The Lions are young but well ahead of where coach Bobby Wallace expected when he started his second tenure with the team last year.
Tickets are $10 for general admission, $25 for a reserved spot in the grandstand and $3 for students, all available at the gate. Tailgating is allowed in Lot 14 only, starting at 8:30 a.m. The cost is $10 per space. Live stats and an audio/video stream will be available for free at UNCPBraves.com.