PEMBROKE — Shane Richardson has acknowledged the elephant in the room with a top-25 matchup for The University of North Carolina at Pembroke’s football team on Saturday at Tuskegee, but the added excitement in prepping for one of the biggest regular season games in program history hasn’t caused the Braves to lose focus.
The No. 21 Braves travel to take on the No. 11 Tuskegee in the fourth top-25 matchup in program history for the Braves.
“They know how big of a matchup this is,” Richardson said. “They’re prepped on the environment that we are going into. We’ve had great leadership and great veterans that have stepped up and have a voice of what it should look like. They’ve been locked in at practice the last two days and we’ve got to put together a couple more good ones.
“I anticipate we’ll go down there and be really focused and our leadership will step up to have a team that’s hungry and ready to play that game that they know the importance of.”
Braves are 0-3 in the previous three top-25 games. Two of the three were NCAA playoff games with losses to North Alabama in 2013 and Arkansas Tech in 2009. The third matchup came in the 2014 season opener with UNCP falling to Winston-Salem State.
Richardson expects Tuskegee to be playing with a little extra passion for this battle of the unbeatens after the Braves earned a 29-17 win last year at home. The emotion will also be on the UNCP sidelines. The Braves are hungry to get a four-quarter performance and still feel like they have something to prove.
“I anticipate that they’re going to extremely up for this game so we’re going to have to ride that emotional wave just a little bit too,” he said. “We’ve just got to make sure we out execute them and then make sure that we’re playing at a level that is consistent with our level and make sure it’s for four quarters.”
The game will pit two defensive units that are ranked inside the top 20 in the nation in total defense. Tuskegee’s defense is ranked seventh in the nation and allows on average less than two touchdowns per game, and its season-high of points allowed is 18 coming in the second game of the season. The Braves defense is ranked 18th nationally.
“I think their defense is really good and could pose a lot of problems for us,” Richardson said. “They’ve got the athletic ability to cover our wide receivers and their defensive front has the ability to put pressure on us as well.”
The Golden Tigers feature the most balanced offense of any team that UNCP has faced this season with 6-foot-6 senior quarterback Kevin Lacey leading the charge. Lacey comes into the game averaging 207 passing yards and 31 rushing yards per game and has accounted for nine touchdowns.
“He can throw the ball and will get out an scramble and make plays on the run,” Richardson said. “He’s a really good player so a lot of their offense will be centered around him.”
While the offense is based on Lacey’s skill set, Tuskegee sets up the pass game with its run game first with freshman Jayjerien Craig.
“They do want to establish the run, and then they want to hit you with big plays, and that’s a little bit of their style,” Richardson said. “Their scheme I would say is very consistent and they do it very well. They’re going to line up and basically say, ‘We’re going to beat you with our people.’”
With their balanced and effective offense that averages 30 points per game, the Golden Tigers have a tendency to turn the ball over with 10 turnovers — eight lost fumbles and two interceptions — through four games. That glaring flaw is always a point of focus each week for the UNCP defense.
“As a defense we always try to look for opportunities to get the ball back quickly to our offense by means of takeaways,” Richardson said.
Jonathan Bym can be reached at 910-816-1977. Follow him on Twitter @Jonathan_Bym.