(Photo: UNCP Athletics) Patrick O’Brien attempts a throw on Saturday night against UNCP.
The same quarterback that helped UNCP earn the first playoff win in program history last season picked apart the Braves on Saturday night.
Patrick O’Brien, who spent a few years in Pembroke before transferring to Catawba for his final year of eligibility, went 18 for 26 with 180 yards and four touchdowns to help the Indians top the Braves 41-9 at Grace P. Johnson Stadium.
O’Brien’s only glaring mistake of the night was an interception thrown to UNCP’s Shawn Everett in the first quarter.
Catawba’s offense got to work quickly on the first drive of the game. O’Brien drove the Indians down the field and set up kicker Lee Brackman for a 23-yard field goal. Less than two minutes later, they struck again.
Following a fruitless drive by the Braves, O’Brien notched his first touchdown as a visitor in Pembroke with a 27-yard toss to Gavin Rose, who finished the first half with 44 receiving yards.
“After the first touchdown, I started to settle in and get a little more comfortable behind the O-line,” O’Brien said.
A response from UNCP didn’t seem imminent, as redshirt freshman Dominick Samson struggled to get comfortable in his third collegiate start. Although neither side mustered a sack in the first half, the Indians were able to consistently pressure Samson and force incompletions.
A change in momentum with less than six minutes remaining in the first helped the Braves get on the scoreboard. A 40-yard punt by Isaac Parks made contact with Catawba’s Caleb Allen before bouncing away. UNCP’s Corey West recovered the loose ball at Catawba’s 33-yard line.
Josh Sheridan took it from there for UNCP. After a quick four-yard run on second down, Sheridan evaded multiple tackles in the backfield to turn a potentially disastrous play into a 29-yard score. The subsequent extra point attempt was blocked by Catawba.
The Braves continued their rally with a 28-yard field goal from Alex Alvarado just before the end of the first quarter, but the Indians weren’t content with letting the hosts hang around.
Catawba held the Braves scoreless in the second quarter while adding a pair of touchdowns to their lead. O’Brien found Kenyatta Greene and Jourdan Osinski for scores of 20 yards and nine yards respectively.
At halftime, the numbers favored Catawba. UNCP had just four first downs in comparison to 13 for the Indians. The Braves also faced a 219-103 deficit in total offense.
Things wouldn’t get easier for the hosts. An offensive line depleted by injuries struggled to maintain protection for its quarterback as well as open up holes for UNCP’s run game.
“I think whenever you have someone injured it starts to mess up the rhythm a little bit, especially on the O-line,” UNCP head coach Shane Richardson said.
The first interception of Samson’s career came in the form of a 64-yard pick-6 with just over six minutes remaining in the third. Catawba’s Josh Smith was credited with the interception, his first and the team’s second of the year.
Samson’s struggles continued in the fourth quarter as he turned the ball over two more times. Trey Murray intercepted Samson almost three minutes into the final period, and Cris Page added another pick on the ensuing UNCP possession.
Meanwhile, a 30-yard field goal from Brackman and a 7-yard touchdown reception by Jourdan Osinski helped put the Braves away for good.
Despite the loss, Richardson was pleased with how his team handled adversity.
“I’m proud of the way our guys fight,” Richardson said. “I’m proud of their attitude. I really like the attitude of our team. No one’s satisfied with how this thing turned out, but were’ going to take it one day at a time and make sure that we rebound from this.”
Samson went 14 for 31 with 92 yards to go along with the three interceptions. Sheridan lead the rushing attack for the Braves with 48 yards and a score on six carries.
Eamon Smart ran for 109 yards on 22 carries for Catawba.
O’Brien finished the 2016 season 257 for 413 with 2,992 yards, 22 touchdowns and 18 interceptions. He totaled eight interceptions and just two scores in the team’s two playoff games last season.
After two seasons in Pembroke, the first being his redshirt year, O’Brien transferred to UNC Charlotte for the 2013 season. After appearing in four games for the 49ers, he decided to come back to UNCP.
The Braves remain at home next week to host Tusculum. The Pioneers lost 30-24 in overtime at Limestone on Saturday night.