PEMBROKE — Still in search of its first complete four-quarter performance in a game, the margin of error for The University of North Carolina at Pembroke football team will shrink in the coming weeks as its schedule gets more rigorous.
Saturday’s 7 p.m. game at Grace P. Johnson Stadium against North Greenville University (2-1) marks the beginning of tough stretch of games where UNCP (3-0) coach Shane Richardson wants to see his team cut out the mistakes that is has been getting by to start the season.
“I challenged our guys that every week we go on it’s going to be more important and more critical, and it’s going to become tougher too,” he said. “We can’t make some of those mistakes as we go on week to week. It’s going to get tougher and tougher, opponents are going to get tougher, it’s going to be tougher to stay at a high level, but we’ve got to fix things and improve.”
Penalties and turnovers are areas the Braves have looked to clean up after averaging 64 penalty yards and over two turnovers per contest through their first three wins. Last week at Shaw, UNCP was flagged seven times for 76 yards and quarterback Patrick O’Brien was picked off five times. Both are numbers that will tough for the Braves to bounce back from against some of the opponents ahead.
On top of looking to better itself against a quality opponent, UNCP is looking for vengeance after a bad start last year at North Greenville ended with the Crusaders taking a 40-17 win.
“We got punched by them,” Richardson said of the slow start last year at North Greenville. “We were down and then we let them kick us and we didn’t get up and respond.”
The response Richardson wanted last year from his team was leadership taking over in times of adversity, but it didn’t happen. That leadership is there this season and is one of major turnarounds for the program.
“This year, we’ve got an understanding of what we’ve got to do better than what we did last year,” Richardson said. “I think we’ve got better leadership, better maturity.”
The Braves’ defense is ranked eighth in the nation in total defense and has forced seven turnovers in its three wins. Leading the way is the pass defense that is ranked eighth nationally in team pass defensive efficiency.
“With 11 guys that are flying around and we continue to try to preach play, play fast, play together,” Richardson said. “Those three things afford us opportunities to get to the ball. We try to look to situations where we can apply pressure to the football and be able to have some ball disruption.
“We’ve been fortunate to be able to come up with some of those and I think those really help swing momentum and give us extra possessions and hopefully more points on the board for us.”
With its successes on pass defense, UNCP’s run defense will be put to the test as the Crusaders’ run game will provide challenges. Much like the Braves’ multi-back rushing game, North Greenville has three tailbacks — Ashton Heard, Simeon Byrd and Tracy Scott — that are averaging over six yards per carry.
“They’re going be a downhill running team that has some running backs that can crease us quickly if we’re not in the right gaps,” Richardson said. “It’s got to be something where we’re not getting on skates. We’ve got to firm up some gaps and be physical with them when they’re trying to move us out of there.”
Jonathan Bym can be reached at 910-816-1977. Follow him on Twitter @Jonathan_Bym.