College Football: Wingate 34, Catawba 24
By Mike London
WINGATE ó Catawba fans waiting for their team to convert a third down before they visited the concession stand went home hungry on Saturday.
Catawba got two early TD runs from Jamelle Cuthbertson, but it was 0-for-11 moving the chains on third down at Wingate’s Belk Stadium. Throw in two special-teams disasters, and the Indians made it easy for Wingate to claim a 34-24 victory in a seething SAC rivalry game.
“We didn’t look sharp, and our focus level wasn’t where we needed it to be,” Catawba coach Chip Hester said. “It was mistake after mistake, and that’s very frustrating because things were open if we’d executed.”
Catawba (4-4, 2-3) watched most team goals slip away. It can still salvage a 14th straight winning season and build momentum for 2010 by winning its final two outings.
Wingate (8-1, 4-1) used three TD passes from J.D. Moore to overcome 156 yards in penalties and travels to Carson-Newman next Saturday for a matchup that figures to decide the SAC title.
Catawba quarterback Patrick Dennis answered a quick Wingate touchdown by directing first-quarter scoring drives of 78 and 71 yards. Cuthbertson finished both with short TD bursts.
Catawba still led 14-7 four minutes before halftime, but tight end Ryan Webber caught a pass from Moore, eluded Catawba corner Terrence Jones and owned his second TD reception of the half. The PAT kick failed, and the Indians still led 14-13.
Travis Landrum bobbled the ensuing kickoff at the 5, recovered as Wingate players swarmed and was stripped near the 10. Phillip Thomas came away with the ball and scored a sudden six for Wingate. On a roll, Thomas then caught a two-point conversion pass for a 21-14 edge, and Wingate had 14 points in eight seconds.
“I’m still not sure what happened on that kickoff, but sometimes the ball bounces your way and momentum turns at just the right time,” Wingate coach Joe Reich said. “That play caused a swing that was unbelievable. We’re down seven, but then, wow, we’re up seven. We never lost the lead all day.”
Catawba had chances to reverse momentum in the third quarter, especially after Jones blocked a Wingate field-goal try. Dennis completed a 45-yard pass to Antwan Strong to the Wingate 30, but the Bulldogs held. On third-and-5, Justin Davis and Jon McKinney sacked Dennis for a loss of 11, and the Indians punted.
Catawba defenders quickly stopped three plays cold to force a Wingate punt, but Aaron Cauble crashed into the punter and drew a flag that put Wingate’s offense back on the field.
“Catawba had a great scheme, and that kid made a great play,” Reich said. “He had it blocked, but somehow the ball got through.”
Wingate took advantage of new life to drive for a TD.
“We felt like we’d just got the momentum back, but that was one of those plays that sort of sucks out all the energy from you,” defensive tackle Melquan Fair said.
Brandon Sutton blocked Wingate’s PAT, and Chris Noel returned it all the way for two Catawba points. The Bulldogs led 27-16 with 4:30 left in the third quarter.
Catawba still had plenty of time, but safety Deitrich Reich picked off a pass and returned it to the Catawba 9 to set up a backbreaking TD.
Former North Rowan standout Daniel Griffith threw his first college TD pass to Brandon Bunn with 1:34 left for the Indians’ first offensive points since the first quarter, but it only made the scoreboard look better.
“I’m third-string, so I had nothing to lose out there,” Griffith said. “It was exciting, but it really hurts to lose to Wingate. When I was being recruited, it was down to Catawba and Wingate.”
Wingate’s won enough of those battles lately that it is likely headed to the Division II playoffs for the first time.
“All I know is it was a war with Wingate today ó a war on offense, defense and special teams,” Sutton said. “All we can do is give our all. We gave all but came up short.”