PEMBROKE — Saturday’s game between The University of North Carolina at Pembroke will mark the school’s Homecoming celebration, an annual watermark event on campus.
But the homecoming moniker isn’t just meant in this case for alumni returning to campus, but also the team they will be watching.
The Braves return to their home field at Grace P. Johnson Stadium after a tough 69-18 loss last week at Carson-Newman, hosting Mars Hill Saturday at 4 p.m.
“It’s a chance to play in front of our home crowd, bring back a lot of alumni and people that are supportive, and we want to put a good product on Saturday and I think guys are energized by that,” UNCP coach Shane Richardson said.
The Braves will sport a different look than their first three home games when they wear gold helmets, returning to the program’s original headgear. Another attire change is gold pants to match the helmets.
“Bringing that back, the helmet that we first originally had, and I think it’s a very sharp looking helmet and I think the guys are really excited about that as well,” Richardson said.
Mars Hill is 3-2 on the season after a dominant win over St. Augustine’s and close wins at Virginia-Wise and Newberry, the latter a 20-19 triumph in their most recent outing. Their losses are to Lenoir-Rhyne, ranked No. 8 nationally in Division II, and Division-I Virginia Military Institute.
Offensively, the Lions are a pass-heavy team. Of the team’s 20 offensive touchdowns, 16 have come via the pass.
The team has thrown for a total of 1,386 yards, and has done it with two primary quarterbacks: sophomore Jimmy Urzua has thrown for 695 yards, eight touchdowns and four interceptions, while junior Collin Sneed has 509 passing yards, six touchdowns and six interceptions. Senior Craig Rucker is their leading receiver with 40 catches (8.0 per game) for 526 yards and five touchdowns.
Facing two quarterbacks presents unique challenges in the Braves’ preparations.
“If they’re switching them up, it’s hard to get a beat on one of them,” Richardson said. “They both can be a little bit different, and you’ve got to be ready for the things that each of them can do against you. It takes preparation, it takes awareness and we’ve got to make sure we’re doing a good job of recognizing that and playing well against both of them.”
On the ground, the Lions average three yards per carry. The only back with significant carries throughout the season has been sophomore Christoper Roberts, who has rushed for 277 yards and one touchdown.
The Braves have struggled against the run, allowing 397 rushing yards and eight touchdowns on the ground at Carson-Newman. While the Lions don’t focus as heavily on the ground game, Richardson said his team still has to be prepared to stop the run to have their best chance to win.
“I don’t think it’s any easier per se — we’ve always got to be ready and prepared — and our guys have got to stop the run still,” Richardson said. “And then we’ve got to defend the pass well. So we’ve got to make sure we’re doing our job on every single play to make sure that we’re executing everything, and it’s definitely an objective of ours on defense to stop the run.”
In their three wins, the Lions defense has held opponents to 15.7 points per game. Opponents average 232.2 passing yards and 168.8 rushing yards per game against them.
A key for the Braves offense will be whether they can run the ball against the Lions defense. The Braves are averaging just 110.4 yards per game on the ground, including just 47 rushing yards in last week’s loss.
“You’ve got to be able to win the run game on both sides of the ball,” Richardson said. “You’ve got to run the ball efficiently and be able to stop the run on defense. Our team has to do that, and it’s definitely a priority and something we emphasize. I’m looking forward to the offense getting out there and opening some holes, and watching our guys run the ball well, and I’m very hopeful and excited to see what that looks like.”
Mars Hill has won both previous meetings between the programs, with a 56-44 win in Pembroke in 2017 and a 34-21 win at Mars Hill last year.
Chris Stiles can be reached at 910-816-1989 or by email at [email protected] You can follow him on Twitter at @StilesOnSports.