PEMBROKE — With every big play that the Catawba offense had on Saturday, it was every response from The University of North Carolina at Pembroke football team’s defense that pleased coach Shane Richardson.
With four touchdowns on plays of 59 yards or more in the game, the No. 20 Braves’ defense rebounded the following drive while the offense closed out strong in its 41-31 win at home. The win is the third in a row for UNCP in an emotional game as it returned to Grace P. Johnson Stadium for the first time since Hurricane Matthew hit the area two weeks ago.
“We gave up the first touchdown on the very first play and we stayed the course,” Richardson said. “That’s a testimony to how our team is able to fight through adverse situations and I’m really proud of them.”
The Indians (3-5) took a shot against the Braves (7-1) on the first play of the game as Reid Carlton connected with Sam Mobley over the top of the defense for a 75-yard touchdown. Three other times in the game, the Braves defense came off the field after a big play, but there was no fear or panic in the huddle.
“Guys weren’t getting nervous or anything,” defensive lineman Marquin Hill said. “We live by a next play motto. Coach (Richardson) has ingrained in us to go onto the next play and to forget about the last play because there’s nothing we can do about it.”
After a touchdown from Patrick O’Brien to B.J. Bunn on UNCP’s first drive to answer the opening touchdown gave it a 7-6 lead, the defense went out and forced a punt — and it did so on three of the four drive following Catawba touchdowns in the game. Richardson said both units fed off the momentum that each brought to the team throughout the course of the game.
“That’s what we do for each other,” he said. “You’re in there to pick each other up and if one side of the ball might not be executing the best they can then the other side is able to step up.”
While the defense stood strong, but had its lapses at moments that led to big plays, the UNCP offense was hit-or-miss in the first half. Following the score from O’Brien to Bunn, the Braves took a 14-6 lead early in the second quarter as Rontonio Stanley scored from five yards out. He finished with 22 rushes for 86 yards.
The Braves answered a 66-yard touchdown pass midway through the second quarter when O’Brien found Terron Huffman wide open over the middle on a third-and-short for a 44-yard touchdown to take a 21-13 lead into the break. After being kept out of the endzone in the third quarter, UNCP scored on each of its three possessions in the final frame as O’Brien hit Bunn for a 57-yard touchdown and Tra Chandler on a 55-yard score. Matt Davis added a 53-yard field goal in the closing seconds to put the game out of reach.
“Their defense really gambled a lot and we were able to catch them in some things,” Richardson said. “Really all day long we could go vertical on them and you saw our receivers get behind their defensive backs to score points that way.”
O’Brien passed for 390 yards and four touchdowns in the game and found Bunn four times for 104 yards and two touchdowns.
Now with two games left, UNCP sits in good position for postseason play, but its one game at a time for the homestretch of the season.
“We stay the course and we stay with the process and we make sure we play the best this play,” Richardson said. “I think we’ve got to understand that it’s a one-game season for two games.”
“We’ve just to continue to fine-tune because we’re not where we want to be,” O’Brien said. “We can be much better than we are right now.”
Next Saturday, the Braves travel to play West Virginia St.
Contact Jonathan Bym on Twitter @Jonathan_Bym.