After the visiting Winston-Salem State Rams held UNCP’s offense in check for most of the first half, an attempt at a late comeback fell just short for the Braves as they dropped their season opener 34-31.
The Rams overwhelmed UNCP’s defense early to take a 20-0 lead at halftime. Kerrion Moore started the attack on the first drive of the game with a 40-yard run for a touchdown. The run ended when Rod Tinsley found Canard Brown on a 73-yard pass that added to the lead with seconds remaining in the half.
Going into the locker rooms, UNCP head coach Shane Richardson encouraged his team to fight through the adversity, referencing a recent event to help with the motivation.
“We used an analogy from the Floyd Mayweather and Connor McGregor fight, to be quite honest,” Richardson said. “Our guys were fired up about that this past weekend, so I tried to use it with them, to say you’ve got to ride the wave. You’ve got to stick to what you know and be confident in who you are.”
That advice seemed to have an immediate effect on the Braves, as they began to put pressure on the Rams in the early stages of the second half. Tre’von Gibson picked off Tinsley on the first drive of the third quarter, returning it 26 yards to the WSSU 4-yard line. Redshirt freshman Dominick Samson, making his collegiate debut at quarterback for the Braves, took advantage of the turnover with a 4-yard touchdown pass to senior JoJo Spann.
Almost two minutes later, UNCP’s defense held strong to help set up the next score for the Braves. After a three-and-out forced the Rams to punt from their own 26-yard line, an errant snap sailed over punter Dillon Griffith and into the endzone. Jordan Howard claimed the loose ball for UNCP to cut the deficit to 20-13.
WSSU responded with a 1-yard score from Moore with just over six minutes remaining in the quarter, but the next two scores came at the hands of two true freshmen for the Braves. The first came when Alex Alvarado connected on a 38-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter, and the second resulted rom an 18-yard run by Jo Leake that closed the gap to 27-23.
UNCP’s rally hit a bump on the ensuing possession when Moore broke away for a 59-yard score with just under six minutes remaining in the game. Samson was unfazed, marching the Braves down the field on the next drive and tossing a 6-yard touchdown to E.J. Williams. A successful two-point conversion on a pass to Quay Threatt pulled UNCP to within a field goal of the Rams.
After a fruitless possession from the visitors, UNCP took over at the WSSU 44-yard line with 27 seconds left and a chance to pull ahead. The Braves weren’t able to pick up a first down, and a pass on fourth down from Samson to JoJo Grant fell short as time expired.
Samson went 27-of-40 for 209 yards and two touchdowns his debut. The Cary native did not turn the ball over despite three fumbles.
“We have our goals that we set every week,” Samson said. “One of them was be turnover-free and I feel like I accomplished that.”
Reggie Pinner, UNCP’s only quarterback with game experience prior to the opener, was ineligible as he served the first of a two-game, team- imposed suspension.
Tinsley went 6-of-18 for 158 yards for the Rams. Moore was the star of the offense for WSSU, rushing for 231 yards on 19 carries.
UNCP’s run game wasn’t nearly as effective. The team combined for 28 yards on as many carries.