WVC football: UC faces big non-conference game
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Coaches don't like phrases like "do or die," and "make or break."
That's why University of Charleston football Coach Pat Kirkland doesn't want to lump this weekend's visit to UNC Pembroke (5-1) into either category.
Make no mistake, however, that the second-year coach isn't just trying to walk a fine line between preparing his team and putting too much pressure on them entering the 2 p.m. Saturday contest at Grace P. Johnson Stadium.
"It's a big game, no question," said Kirkland, whose Golden Eagles' two losses in their last 10 games were at UC Stadium to Shepherd two weeks ago (16-10), and Pembroke last year (52-14). "I don't think it's make or break, we still have a lot of season to go, we're just at the midway point. We're playing a good football team, they have one loss in the first game of the season and that was to the No. 3 team in the country (Winston-Salem State), 28-23."
Some of the current Golden Eagles (5-1) already have experienced being on a 9-2 team and missing the playoffs because of a non-conference result.
That 2009 UC team went 9-2 and missed the playoffs after back-to-back West Virginia Conference losses in weeks nine and 10. That Golden Eagles' team wasn't helped by a non-conference win over a struggling Tusculum squad.
The circumstances are similar three years later, but not quite the same. This time the Golden Eagles' only loss is to Shepherd - one of the two best teams on their schedule. The other one is Pembroke, which hasn't lost since Sept. 1.
"Absolutely (make or break), there's no question about that," said senior defensive end Jeff Green, who leads the team in sacks with eight.
"For us, this is when the playoffs start. What we all learned and what we all know, is that 9-2 doesn't get you into the playoffs. It's a shame we lost to Shepherd, but the truth is we're not in the driver's seat anymore. Now we can only control so many things."
The Braves are No. 24 in the NCAA Division II rankings with five consecutive victories.
In last year's 38-point rout of the Golden Eagles - which stands as the worst loss in Kirkland's tenure at UC - Pembroke quarterback Luke Charles was 22-of-26 for 297 yards and two touchdowns. Wide receiver Donald Britt torched the UC secondary for four catches, 108 yards and a touchdown.
Britt averages just 8.7 yards per catch after averaging 17.2 last year. Te'vell Williams has taken on the big-play responsibilities of the Braves this season, but is the only one to average more than 10 yards per catch (14.1). Last year, UNC-Pembroke had 13 receivers average at least 11 yards per reception.
The Pembroke defense also has given up an average of 392.2 yards per game (268 passes and 124.2 rushing) and 20.2 points a contest.
The Braves have been bailed out by an opportunistic defense, which is plus-9 in turnover ratio. They had seven interceptions against Wingate, but needed to outscore the Bulldogs 21-0 in the fourth quarter to win 49-35. Wingate was half the field away from the game-deciding points Pembroke's Sean Rush returned a fumble 59 yards for the game's deciding points with 3:41 remaining.
Also, the Braves have recovered seven of their opponents' 13 fumbles, while regaining possession on five of their own eight fumbles.
No matter how Pembroke is winning games, UC defensive back Ahmed Shakoor is looking forward to the challenge against an offense that still relies heavily on the pass.
"I take every opponent as seriously as I need to take it," Shakoor said. "The stakes are very high this week. If we lose this week, we're not eligible for the playoffs."
That's not factually true, since the top six teams in each region earn a postseason berth and there's no guarantee that UC will not earn one of those spots in Super Region 1 by season's end.
Still, it's the approach of his team, even if Kirkland is trying to avoid such approaches to what his players see as the biggest game of his tenure.
"If we win this week, I think 10-1 gets us a spot," Green said. "Especially with a win over a nationally ranked UNC-Pembroke team. We're approaching this week that way. This is a playoff atmosphere. At practice, we've upped everything, practice harder, condition more, hit more, do everything we have to do to get in position to win this game."
Contact Assistant Sports Editor Rich Stevens at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-4837.