PEMBROKE — For the last two years, Grace P. Johnson Stadium was a hallowed place The University of North Carolina at Pembroke football team protected for 10 games without a loss.
Through three games in the 2017 season, the field has been treated more like an unmarked grass lot where opposing teams come in, light up the scoreboard and come away victorious. The Braves’ dropped their third home game of the season on Saturday in a 31-10 loss to Tusculum as its turnover-plagued offense failed to generate enough points for the second straight week.
“If I look at our record, it’s irritating all over the board. Our vision is not anything to do with wins and losses,” UNCP coach Shane Richardson said. “I want to win as much as everyone else, and I’m a competitive individual. If we put that so much pressure on winning and that type of thing, the process doesn’t get right. … Nobody wants to lose in front of their home crowd so it’s really disappointing to be in this situations.”
Turnovers came in bad spots for the young Braves (1-3) in the loss as it lost the turnover battle 5-0. In the first half the turnovers were fumbles and UNCP quarterback Dominick Samson continued his second-half struggles with two interceptions on drives that went into Tusculum (2-2) territory. On special teams, JoJo Spann had turnovers.
A week after having just one drive longer than 35 yards in the loss to Catawba, the Braves faired better with three drives over 35 yards, but an interception by Samson stopped the third drive that went into Tusculum territory.
“The biggest thing with our team is we’re not executing. I really challenged our guys in terms of the morale and them understanding that they need to attack the process,” Richardson said. “We’re just not a good team right now and that’s just the bare bones about it. We’re extremely young and banged up and there’s a lot of maturity that needs to take place.”
Spann’s first turnover came on the opening kickoff and helped Tusculum build an early lead. Spann broke free and had Tusculum kicker Gabe Shillings to beat to score a touchdown, but Shillings tackled the Braves’ returner and forced a fumble to give the ball to the Pioneers’ offense to start the game.
Tusculum capitalized on the turnover when Alex Ogle connected with Evan Gates for a 33-yard touchdown pass on fourth down to put it up 8-0.
UNCP was slow to respond, but found the end zone late in the first quarter when Josh Sheridan scored on a 19-yard run. The score was his third touchdown in three games and cut the Tusculum lead to 8-7.
“I’m finding a better role than I started with. I can only control what I can when I get in and I’ve got to make the most of every opportunity I get,” Sheridan said.
The Braves rushed for 99 yards, with Samson leading the team with 41 yards on the ground and Sheridan adding 25 yards. This was the third game this season where the Braves were held to under 110 yards rushing as a team, and for the second week in a row, the youth up front on the offensive line showed.
“I look out there and I see an offensive line that is pretty much all freshmen across the board,” Richardson said. “I look at guys that are trying to do the right thing and give great effort. … Obviously we need to fix things each week and that’s disappointing.”
Four freshmen started in the trenches for the Braves’ offense, with junior Jared Johnson being the only returner from last year.
Right before the end of the first, the Pioneers took the lead out to 15-7 when Maxwell Joseph scored on a short run, after a long kickoff return started the drive at the Braves’ 20-yard line.
Ogle took advantage of another fourth down in the second quarter when he punched in a touchdown on fourth and goal at the one-yard line to put the Pioneers up 22-7.
Tusculum came out firing the second half as Ogle connected with Gary Breuklander for a 56-yard touchdown to push the lead to 28-10 on a drive that lasted two minutes. Ogle passed for 198 yards and two touchdowns in the win, to lead the Pioneer’s offense that racked up 309 yards for total offense and went 3-for-4 on fourth down.
“We’ve just got to focus on what we got to do as a defense. We can’t focus on offense. We’ve just got to stay on the right track,” said Josh Manns, who led the Braves with 11 tackles. “We can’t dwell on the past games. We’ve just got to keep going.”
The next game for the Braves comes as they travel to Newberry next weekend.
UNCP running back Josh Sheridan breaks a tackle as he scores the lone UNCP touchdown in the 31-17 loss against Tusculum. The score was the third touchdown in three games for the Lumberton native.
Jonathan Bym can be reached at 910-816-1977. Follow him on Twitter @Jonathan_Bym.