PEMBROKE — Rontonio Stanley set out with the mindset to contribute in a big way for The University of North Carolina at Pembroke football team on Saturday against No. 17 Tuskegee.
On the day before his 22nd birthday, the junior running back did just that, rushing for three touchdowns en route to a 29-17 upset win for the Braves over the Golden Tigers.
“First off, I have to give God the glory. I did what I was supposed to do,” said Stanley, who rushed for 131 yards on 16 carries. “You can’t take anything for granted. I was just doing my job. That’s the motto.”
Trailing 17-16 in the fourth quarter, UNCP (4-1) orchestrated an eight-play, 54-yard drive, taking the lead for good after a one-yard run by Stanley with 5:49 left to play.
Stanley was quick to credit his teammates after the win.
“We have backs that are just as good as me, I guess I had the hot hand,” Stanley said. “I love (the offensive line) to death. Without them I can’t do anything.”
The win on homecoming helped UNCP improve to 3-0 this season at home and 2-0 against ranked opponents. It was the first loss of the year for Tuskegee.
The victory was a welcome sight for UNCP coach Shane Richardson after the Braves suffered their first loss of the season last week at North Greenville.
“What we saw today (Saturday) was a great tribute to a coaching staff and a team that was able to buy in to the process in learning from last week,” Richardson said. “We talked about the need to shake it off and step up. We did that today.”
Senior Mike Keck registered three sacks for the second time this season moving him atop UNCP’s single season sacks list. All three of his sacks came in the closing minutes.
“If you would’ve asked me about (the sack record) a month ago, I would’ve said ‘yeah, I’m going to try to break it,’” Keck said. “I’m very excited and thankful for the opportunity to make plays.”
Freshman Jonas Johnson tallied a team-best nine tackles, with Tirek Holloway adding seven. Mike Lawrence snagged an interception for the Braves, who finished with two takeaways.
The Braves had their struggles on the defensive side of the ball — missing tackles and drawing penalties — but rose to the occasion with the game winding down, forcing the Golden Tigers to turn it over on downs multiple times in the final minutes.
“That’s when we’re at our best,” Keck said. “Every time (the opposing team) snaps the ball in a two-minute situation, we feel like we can get a sack. After the loss, we wanted to get the momentum and sustain it. I feel like we did a good job of that today.”
Quarterback Patrick O’Brien was 22-of-32 for 230 yards and a touchdown, giving the Braves an early 7-0 lead on a 27-yard pass to JoJo Spann in the first quarter.
Richardson said O’Brien is becoming “more settled” in his play.
“He’s growing and learning,” he said “I thought he was more comfortable with his style of play — more settled in his ability to not make a poor choice. He did a really good job.”
The Braves went up by two scores early in the second quarter when kicker Matt Davis nailed a 30-yard field goal that put UNCP up 10-0. But Tuskegee battled back, recovering a fumble two drives later that led to a nine-yard touchdown run by Kenno Loyal to trim UNCP’s lead to 10-7 at the break.
The Golden Tigers cut UNCP’s lead to a single score again on Kemuel Lawrence’s 25-yard field goal midway through the third quarter, and then used a 12-play, 80-yard scoring drive capped by Kevin Lacey’s 1-yard run to give Tuskegee a 17-16 edge.
But Stanley iced the game late for the Braves with his final two touchdowns, scampering in from 45 yards out to provide the final tally, capping off homecoming week in Pembroke.
“We’re comfortable in our environment,” Richardson said. “We take great pride in playing in front of our fans. We have to win on the road as well, but there’s certainly a comfort level to playing at home. Our guys proved that again today.”
UNCP will enjoy a bye next week before making the long trip to Florence, Ala., on Oct. 17 for a battle with eighth-ranked North Alabama (3-1). The Lions were a 33-31 victim of ninth-ranked Valdosta State on Saturday.
Rodd Baxley can be reached at 910-416-5182. Follow him on Twitter @RoddBaxley.