PEMBROKE — The University of North Carolina at Pembroke football team won 17-7 with defensive dominance in the Braves home opener against 20th-ranked Winston-Salem State on Thursday.
As a defensive-minded coach, Shane Richardson is adamant about instilling a mindset into defensive players. He calls it “Code Black” — a mantra that emphasizes the importance of playing hard, fast and together with relentless effort.
On Thursday night, the Braves put “Code Black” on full display in a dominating defensive performance.
“It’s how we play, not who we play,” Richardson said. “Winning is a cure-all for a lot of things. It was much-needed in this program after a long year of of ups-and-downs last season.”
UNCP registered seven sacks and limited the Rams to 40 yards rushing, claiming its second win over Winston-Salem State in the Division II schools’ last three meetings.
“They’re always a top-25 program,” Richardson said. “…It’s a great little rivalry that’s sparked. (The win) means a lot because of the amount of respect we have for them.”
But it wasn’t a smooth start for the UNCP defense against the CIAA favorites.
The Rams took the opening drive 75 yards and scored on a 12-yard pass from quarterback Rod Tinsley to Wake Forest transfer Anthony Rook.
It ended up being the only time the Rams would visit the endzone — or redzone — the rest of the night.
“Our guys played lights out after that,” Richardson said. “They continued to believe. They bought into Code Black.”
The defensive effort was led by senior Kendall Jacobs, who finished with a team-high eight tackles and .5 sack.
But it was the big boys in the trenches that caused problems for the Rams throughout the night.
Anchoring the defensive line were Aarace Brooks and Mike Keck. Brooks finished with a pair of sacks and Keck added 1.5 sacks with two tackles for a loss.
“Our defensive line surprised me,” Richardson said. “They applied a lot of pressure and got in the backfield quite a bit. When you have a d-line that can handle the run and the pass, it makes it a lot easier for the back seven.”
The momentum shifted in favor of the Braves after an interception late in the first quarter by Mike Lawrence.
The offense took advantage of the opportunity, driving 64 yards in seven plays, tying the score when receiver B.J. Bunn caught a pass, made some Ram defenders miss and scored from 21 yards out. Bunn finished with a team-high eight receptions for 94 yards.
Leading the offense in his first start as a Brave, redshirt junior quarterback Patrick O’Brien completed 21 of his 32 passes, finishing with 200 yards and a touchdown.
Richardson said it’s a sign of things to come.
“I think he was solid,” he said. “…He hasn’t played live football against a team in a long time. He’ll make a huge improvement from here on out.”
For O’Brien, it was about finding a rhythm.
“The first couple of drives were rusty,” O’Brien said. “I guess it was the time being off the field so long. But after that it felt normal. I started getting in a groove.”
Late in the second quarter, O’Brien led the Braves on a drive that ate up 7:07, ending with a 24-yard field goal from Matt Davis.
Cliff Jones dove into the endzone from one yard out on the first possession of the second half for the final tally.
The Rams threatened in the third quarter after a muffed punt by the Braves, but Code Black came up big again, getting a sack by Carlos Manning on the following play and forcing a 3-and-out on the series.
The Braves shut down a final threat by Winston-Salem State in the final minutes, after sacks by Brooks, Keck and Khalil Vance.
For Keck, the win serves as motivation to reach higher throughout the season.
“A win like this needs to humble us,” Keck said. “It needs to show us that there are no limitations. That we can keep on gaining from this experience. It gives us confidence.”
The Braves will be back in action on Sept. 12 when they make the short trip up Interstate 95 to battle Fayetteville State in the seventh-annual Two Rivers Classic.
Rodd Baxley can be reached at 910-416-5182. Follow him on Twitter @RoddBaxley.