SALISBURY — There were 2 minutes, 53 seconds left on the scoreboard at Shuford Stadium, and Wingate, leading by a single point, was facing third-and-14 at the Catawba 40.
A dramatic finish appeared to be upcoming, but Catawba never got the ball back. Wingate converted that third-and-14, as QB Robbie Nallenweg hit Tim Lanesnik with a short pass, and Lanesnik evaded one potential tackler and dived past another for a 16-yard gain.
Catawba had used its final timeout before that play, so it wasn’t long before the visiting Bulldogs were kneeling out the clock and celebrating a 23-22 SAC victory.
“The third-and-14 — that was a dagger to the heart,” Catawba defensive tackle Gabe Evans groaned.
It was a stunning loss for the Indians (3-3, 1-3), who completely dominated the first half and were in command 22-3 after David Burgess scored his third rushing TD of the afternoon early in the third quarter.
“I was impressed by what Catawba was doing and they were executing offensively and sustaining drives, while we were lifeless, like a deer in the headlights,” Wingate coach Joe Reich said. “But when Catawba went up 22-3, that woke us up.”
The first half likely was Catawba’s best 30 minutes all year. Wingate had negative rushing yards and just four first downs at the break, and Catawba linebacker Jalen Forrest made a one-handed interception to get the Indians rolling.
Offensively, Catawba QB Danny O’Brien had been even more precise than usual, completing 16 of his 18 passes, and Burgess had dashed over and around Wingate defenders.
“We did exactly what we needed to do,” Catawba coach Curtis Walker said.
Wingate’s comeback was ignited by Angelo Crawford-Reid’s kickoff return to the Catawba 44. The Bulldogs (2-3, 1-2) took advantage of the short field to score a TD, but the Indians denied a 2-point conversion and led 22-9.
Momentum had turned, however, and after a Catawba three-and-out, Wingate drove 61 yards to score in the final minute of the third quarter, and it was 22-16.
“Nallenweg was holding on to the ball a little too long in the first half,” Reich said. “He got the ball out quicker in the second half, and we started executing.”
Catawba drove the ball to the Wingate 43, but the Indians lost a fumble. Wingate then drove 60 yards, 57 coming through the air. Nallenweg passed 9 yards to Crawford-Reid for the TD that tied the game at 22-all with 4:31 left, and Patrick Smith’s PAT put the Bulldogs ahead.
With 3:42 left, the Indians faced fourth-and-10 at the Catawba 41. Walker’s decision was to go for it, and O’Brien fired a strike to tight end Tyler Hamilton on the Wingate sideline. When the ball reached Hamilton,he was past the first-down marker.
“I secured the ball and I made sure I had down and distance,” Hamilton said. “I’m sure my knee was down and I’m also sure I was out of bounds, but when I got hit, the ball popped out.”
The ball rolled a yard before it wiggled out of bounds. Officials ruled Hamilton made the catch, but the ball was spotted short of a first down. The Dogs took over, and things got desperate for the home team. Then the third-and-14 conversion sealed the Indians’ fate.
“It’s a tough one to take,” Walker said. “I commend our guys for their first half, but we didn’t play well enough in the second half to win. We’ve still got to grow up.”
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