PEMBROKE — The five interceptions that The University of North Carolina at Pembroke quarterback Patrick O’Brien threw last week at Shaw loomed in his mind all week, but Saturday night at home the junior was able to put the past behind him.
The Braves moved to 4-0 for the first time since the 2013 campaign with a 49-35 win over North Greenville at Grace P. Johnson Stadium behind the efficient arm of O’Brien.
“All week I had been thinking about it in the back of my mind like I need to step up, I’m due for a big game,” O’Brien said. “My teammates, I wanted to play good in front of them so they wouldn’t lose confidence in me. I feel really good and I’m happy about tonight’s performance.”
O’Brien finished the game 34-for-39 passing with 330 yards through the air and a total of six touchdowns — four passing, two rushing. He accounted for the first six touchdowns on the night for the Braves including the first four that gave UNCP a 28-7 lead going into halftime.
“I thought he was just dialed in and it spoke highly of him and his preparation and how he bounced back,” UNCP football coach Shane Richardson said. “He prepared very well and he was hungry. I thought it was a mark of a really good quarterback out there.”
On the Braves’ first three drives, O’Brien had two touchdown passes as he connected with Jonathan Allen for a 16-yard score on their first drive and hit Tra Chandler who broke free for a 59-yard touchdown two drives later to give UNCP a 14-7 lead after the first quarter.
In the second, O’Brien scored his first of two rushing touchdown before tossing his passing touchdown of the half to B.J. Bunn for the Braves’ final first-half drive to give his team a three-touchdown advantage at the half.
“That was one of the best first halves and halves of football we’ve played all year long,” Richardson said.
He completed his first 13 passes against an experienced North Greenville secondary that started four seniors.
“Knowing that they’ve got everybody in the secondary returning, I knew we couldn’t take them lightly,” O’Brien said. “We went took this week very seriously and luckily it paid off.”
Out of halftime, the Braves’ offense went stagnant and North Greenville took advantage. The Braves fumbled on back-to-back plays on their second drive of the half, with North Greenville jumping on the second one and scoring with a 22-yard run from Simeon Byrd on the next play to cut the lead to 14 points.
The second half turned into a shootout as both teams traded scores after the Crusaders cut the lead down to two touchdowns.
“We’ve got to do a better job in the second half of trying to really get off the field on defense,” Richardson said. “It got a bit sloppy there but fortunately the offense was able to put up enough points and we were able to outscore them. That’s what good things do.”
With a touchdown through the air and another on the ground, O’Brien did his part to help the offense keep its cushion in the final 30 minutes.
“I’ve never in college been put in the situation where we’re going back at it. Usually our defense is killing them and they’re not scoring,” O’Brien said. “Offense had it keep it going and keep them positive.”
Along with the first half being one of the better halves of football the Braves have played this year, Richardson said it was a solid half considering how his team started out flat last year at North Greenville in the blowout loss.
“We were in this position a year ago and we went down to their place and they really showed us how to come out and play football in a very hungry way,” he said. “Our team remembered that and I think a lot of credit goes to our guys’ mentality to how they viewed this game.”
UNCP plays at Tuskegee next Saturday, which will be a matchup of two undefeated teams and possibly a top-25 game with Tuskegee sitting in the top-25 in last week’s rankings and UNCP on the cusp.
Jonathan Bym can be reached at 910-816-1977. Follow him on Twitter @Jonathan_Bym.