UNCP hosts struggling WV Wesleyan in home opener

Sep. 10—PEMBROKE — As The University of North Carolina at Pembroke football team takes to its home field at Grace P. Johnson Stadium Saturday for the first time this fall, they'll do so with the excitement of a home opener — and the hunger of a team searching for its first victory.

The Braves host West Virginia Wesleyan for a noon kickoff Saturday, one week removed from a 15-13 season-opening loss at Fayetteville State.

"The great thing about the team is that, we take a loss and it's a hard-fought game, but there's a lot of good things that came from that game," UNCP coach Shane Richardson said. "Everybody was disappointed, obviously, in the result, and I think what we did was we came back to work on Monday and guys have a hungry attitude. They had an attitude that they weren't going to allow one game to bleed into the next week; they saw the positive in things and really just tried to keep working."

Perhaps the biggest point of emphasis for the Braves this week is improving offensively after a nearly 37-minute scoreless stretch to end the FSU game, one which proved pivotal in the close contest. The Braves were held to 38 total rushing yards.

"We've got to get better at third down; we've got to execute that much, much better," Richardson said. "We've got to take advantage of opportunities in the red zone. We were able to drive the ball and then just could not capitalize or finish like we wanted to to get points on the board. We gave up some sacks; we've got to be better with that. It's kind of all-encompassing."

West Virginia Wesleyan (0-1) comes to Pembroke after a 72-0 loss in its season opener at Saginaw Valley State, the team's 21st consecutive loss. Facing a team immediately off of a lopsided loss can present a special kind of challenge, Richardson said.

"We have a saying in the program where it's how we play and not who we play, and so we're trying not to look at them or look at the score and start comparing things or anything like that," Richardson said. "We respect every opponent, and I think when you look at their film, they're a very capable team, and it's all about how we execute and we're going to go in there with our effort and our energy, and what we're going to bring to the table, and that's all that really matters. We expect that West Virginia Wesleyan's going to give us a great game, and they're going to be hungry; nobody wants to have a score like that."

The Bobcats were outgained 502-102 in the opener and had two first downs offensively. The team's defense allowed 372 rushing yards.

Sophomore quarterback Nathan Payne threw for 703 yards with three touchdowns and three interceptions in seven games last season; he was 9-for-17 for 60 yards last week. The Bobcats are without their top six rushers and two of their top three receivers from 2021, a season in which they were 0-11.

While the Bobcats have had anything but success in recent years and weeks, Richardson says they're still a team that plays hard and "has a plan" what it wants to do in each game.

"They know what they want to do and I think they look very organized out there," Richardson said. "I think some things didn't go their way (last week), but if you've got a team that plays hard and you know what you're trying to do, good things can happen for you. We've got to make sure we do our job and take what we're going to do very seriously, and we've got to make sure we execute our stuff."

While the teams have not met on the field since 2008, last season's meeting was canceled due to COVID-19 concerns in the West Virginia Wesleyan program and UNCP was credited the win through forfeit, per the Mountain East Conference's COVID-19 policy. The teams split two meetings in 2007-08, UNCP's first two seasons playing football.

The Braves will commemorate Military Appreciation Day at Saturday's game. Discount tickets are available for active and retired military, and the All-Veteran Group jump team will deliver the game ball via parachute before kickoff.

Chris Stiles can be reached at 910-816-1977 or by email at cstiles@robesonian.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @StilesOnSports.