PEMBROKE — Entering its 10th season on the gridiron, The University of North Carolina at Pembroke football team has its eyes set on a first for the program in its opening game.
Although it has defeated Winston-Salem State at home two games in a row, UNCP is 0-3 at Bowman Gray Stadium, site of the Braves’ season opener today at 6 p.m.
“I don’t know if it is a monkey off our back, but I think it would be a great accomplishment,” said UNCP coach Shane Richardson. “It’s a well-respected program, a team that’s played in the national championship game, a team that wins the CIAA year in and year out — or at least is competing for it — and it would huge to go up to that environment and be able to play very well and hopefully come home with a win.”
The closest chance at a win for the Braves on the road in the series came in 2012 when a last-second Hail Mary was knocked down by Winston-Salem State to preserve a 28-23 win. The other games the Rams have claimed have been by sizable margins.
“It’s one of my goals this year as a senior,” senior wide receiver B.J. Bunn said of getting a win in Winston-Salem. “We have never won there. We’ve beat them here, then they’ve beat us there and we’ve beat them here. I feel like we are going to change I guess that tradition this year of losing at Winston-Salem.”
Winston-Salem State returns sophomore quarterback Rod Tinsley after a 1,381-yard season with 10 touchdowns and 10 interceptions as a freshman. He returns three of his top four targets from last season and the backfield loses its top rusher in Tyree Massey to graduation after carrying the ball 190 times for 867 yards last season.
Despite a change in cast at running back, Richardson expects the defending CIAA champs to look the same on the field under third-year coach Kienus Boulware.
“I think they’re very good at doing what they do,” Richardson said. “We think they’re going to run the ball. We think that offensively they’ll probably get out on the edge with their quarterback and create some plays with the run-pass option concept.”
Stopping the run and limiting plays on the outside for Tinsley, much like the Braves did last year, is the focus on defense this time around. In the meeting last year, The Rams were held to 40 yards on the ground.
“We know what they are bringing, but you’ve still got to stop it though,” senior linebacker Elijah Williams said.
“We’ve just got to be ready for that and be able to rally to the ball defensively to stop their offense,” Richardson said. “If we can stop the run, then we’ve got a really good chance of putting ourselves in position there.”
On the other side of the ball, Winston-Salem State loses its top two defensive players in Michael Bloomfield and Phillip Williamson, who finished last season as the team’s top two tackle, sack and tackle for loss leaders, but return starters at all three areas on defense.
“Defensively, they’re going to be pretty simple and pretty sound,” Richardson said. “We’ve got to be able to expose them in the first game getting them tired and trying to wear them down with our speed and athleticism.”
To get their first win at Winston-Salem State, the Braves will not only have to focus on knowing what to do, but executing on what they can control. That is just how the process-driven team operates.
“Our motto is we never worry about who we are playing, it’s how we play,” Bunn said. “I feel like if we go up there and be sound on our assignments, hustle to the ball and play to the whistle, it will take care of itself.”
Jonathan Bym can be reached at 910-816-1977. Follow him on Twitter @Jonathan_Bym.