PEMBROKE —In its first shot at televised glory, The University of North Carolina at Pembroke football team got it done.
In front of a record-setting crowd at Grace P. Johnson Stadium and a national audience on the CBS Sports Network, the Braves opened the season with a 25-21 win against fifth-ranked Winston-Salem State University on Thursday, the school’s first win against a top-10 team.
“To bump the No. 5 team in the country on the first weekend is a good way to start the season,” UNCP coach Pete Shinnick said. “We’re glad we could do it on national television.”
In a win that numerous players said was among the best of their lives, they also struggled to find the words to describe it in the immediate aftermath.
“I’ve never been part of anything like that” said UNCP quarterback Luke Charles. “I looked at coach (Pete) Shinnick towards the end of the game and said ‘This is fun right here.’”
In the end, everything seemed to come together for the Braves in a game that wasn’t secure until Dominique Bridges intercepted a pass with 37 seconds left to play to end Winston-Salem’s 20-game regular season win streak.
Otherwise, it was a game that was far from predictable.
Despite both teams having strong running backs, neither allowed much give from the run, with the majority of the offense coming on passing. Charles finished the game 24-for-39 with 218 yards and Winston-Salem State’s Anthony Carrothers went 24-of-40 for 254.
With scoring coming in bunches, the Braves had 12 points in the first half before allowing three straight touchdowns to go down 21-12. An interception return late in the third quarter and two field goals eventually put the Braves back ahead.
The momentum shift came with three minutes left in the third quarter, when UNCP cornerback Mike Lawrence picked off a pass at the Winston-Salem 44-yard line and ran it back along the left side for a touchdown. The play came directly after Charles had thrown an interception.
“What better way to pick up a teammate after a bad mistake than doing that right there?” Charles said. “From there it was a new ball game.”
The point after kick with the play narrowed the Winston-Salem lead to 21-19.
UNCP kept the momentum, forcing a three-and-out on Winston-Salem’s ensuing drive. When UNCP got the ball back, the Braves moved the ball across the field to the Winston-Salem 5 and went back ahead on Haskins field goal. Haskins capped the day with a 44-yarder on UNCP’s next drive.
“Connor kicking the way he did, that was huge,” Shinnick said. “Obviously you love touchdowns, but when you can’t get a touchdown, you’ll take the points and Connor was really good.”
Winston-Salem tried piecing together drives late in the fourth, but had them cut short, first on a fumble lost by Carrothers and then by Bridges’ interception.
Early on, UNCP struggled to take advantage of strong field position from its special teams.
The Braves’ second and third drives of the game both started in Winston-Salem’s half of the field and approached the goal line but Elliott Powell couldn’t break through with runs up the middle.
The former drive ended with a turnover-on-downs at the 1-yard line, which led to a safety against the Rams on the next drive. The next drive began on the WSSU 17 and ended with a field goal after the Braves were again stopped at the 1.
The run eventually broke through early in the second quarter after Tamari White ran in the middle for the first touchdown of the night to make it 12-0.
Winston-Salem got momentum going into halftime When the Rams got the ball back, they paced out a 16-play drive that lasted more than eight minutes and ended on a 2-yard touchdown pass from Carrothers to Tehvyn Brantley with four seconds left in the half.
WSSU kept the momentum in the second half, scoring touchdowns on two of the first three drives.
Much of the offense was from Carrothers, who threw for 74 yards in the first half but finished the game with 254 as the Rams went up 21-12 with 4:24 left in the third. Both touchdowins in the third quarter were from Lumberton alum Maurice Lewis, who finished the game with 29 rushing yards.
Shinnick said that even as his team fell behind, he emphasized just grinding it out.
“I really wasn’t worried about it at the moment,” Shinnick said. “I told our guys that we’re playing first and second half defense, just keep going.”
The game included several new elements to the gameday experience.
Prior to kickoff, the game ball was delivered to the field by a team of skydivers and players entered the stadium through a new inflatable hawk head, complete with smoke at the players’ feet. Combined with the win, the experience added up to a moment that made Shinnick proud for the university.
“I thought our crowd was electric, our student body was amazing and what we’ve done to make the gameday experience what it is now is very exciting,” he said. “I could not be more proud of our team and how they fought and how they worked and how they believed the whole time through.”