JACKSON, Tenn. – UNCP registered five scoring plays of better than 35 yards, including a 90-yard punt return and a 77-yard fumble return in the second quarter, en route to easing past Lane, 47-28, and securing its first win outside the state lines Saturday evening at T.R. White Stadium.
The point total was a school record for the Braves (4-1) who put up their record-scoring output despite mustering just 160 yards of total offense and eight first downs on the night. The Dragons (1-4) held the ball for nearly 43 minutes in the contest, but could not overcome three costly turnovers against a determined Black and Gold squad that shook off any effects of a 12-hour trek to western Tennessee with a program-best 28 points in the second quarter alone.
Quarterback Cory Smith (3-for-3, TD) tallied three of UNCP’s four passing completions on the night, Brandon McLaurin rushed four times for 54 yards and a touchdown and Williams accounted for 139 return yards, scoring the first punt return touchdown in school history in the record-breaking second quarter, while also setting up another score with a 49-yard kickoff return in the third period.
The UNCP stop troops forced three or more turnovers for the fifth-straight game this season, this time forcing a trio of fumbles and turning all but one miscue into points. Ben Kurti paced the Braves with 6-1/2 tackles, including four solo stops, with J.T. McCoy registering six stops, including four solo tackles, two tackles for loss and a huge fumble recovery.
“We ran 12 plays for 63 yards in the first half, but we led 28-14 at halftime,” said UNCP head coach Pete Shinnick. “That is the first time in my career that I have seen something like that. We were able to get things done with our defense and special teams and I was excited to see that happen.”
The Braves ran just six plays for five yards in the opening quarter and could only watch as Lane engineered a methodical 11-play, 63-yard scoring drive midway through the period that was capped off on quarterback Sherard Ellis’ 30-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Shelton down the middle of the field. After managing just seven yards on its next six plays, however, the Braves would go unconventional.
Williams’ shifty 90-yard punt return would be followed by fumble returns for touchdowns on each of the next two possessions by the Dragons that allowed the visitors to completely change the momentum of the game in building a 21-7 lead. Lane answered UNCP’s third score with a 9-play, 63-yard scoring drive that put the hosts back into the game, 21-14, with 1:33 left to play, but Smith pushed the lead back out to a pair of scores when he found Jamar Dials on a 56-yard strike down the far sideline.
McLaurin’s 60-yard scoring jaunt with just more than six minutes left in the third quarter cushioned the UNCP lead out to 34-14, but a quick 3-play, 65-yard scoring drive by the Dragons on the ensuing possession would keep the home crowd into it.
However, a 49-yard return by Williams on the ensuing kickoff would give the Braves a short field and Travis Daniels scored his first collegiate touchdown 68 seconds later. Justin Avery sacked and stripped Ellis of the ball on the following possession to set up UNCP’s final score of the night – a 16-yard touchdown pass to from Smith to L.J. Johnson in the back of the endzone.