SALISBURY — Out since the Carson-Newman game with a bruised lung, Catawba safety Mark McDaniel provided the Indians’ second wind on Saturday.
McDaniel’s 33-yard interception return energized every fan and every teammate and turned a potentially routine victory for 10th-ranked UNC Pembroke into a hold-on-for-dear-life sort of thing.
UNCP won 34-31 at Shuford Stadium to move to 6-0, but the Braves exited with sighs of relief and tips of their caps to Catawba (3-4).
“Catawba is young and inexperienced, and we were able to use that to our advantage a few times,” said UNCP slot receiver Ben DeCelle, an East Rowan grad who had eight catches for 82 yards. “But that’s still a very good team. We were lucky to get out of here 6-0.”
Catawba got an early 47-yard field goal by Chad Hollandsworth that was set up by JaMarcus Moore’s interception, but the Indians missed two opportunities to build on that 3-0 lead.
Then a UNC Pembroke team that clobbered FCS school Charlotte last week took over on both sides of the ball in a dominating second quarter. Catawba safety L.J. McCray nearly picked off a sideline throw by UNCP QB Luke Charles (336 passing yards), but John Rich made the catch and then saw grass. His 81-yard TD sprint 57 seconds before halftime gave the Braves a 17-3 lead at the break.
Catawba coach Curtis Walker’s halftime speech was simple. He reminded the Indians they led Wingate 15-3 at halftime a week earlier, and Wingate had come back to beat the Indians. Why couldn’t Catawba make a similar comeback?
“I asked them, ‘Do you believe?’ and they said they did,” Walker explained. “I told them to go get it. All we needed was that one spark.”
It got worse before it got better.
When UNCP’s Rontonio Stanley punched in a TD early in the third quarter, Catawba’s deficit was 24-3, and it appeared time for the homecoming crowd to drive home safely.
But with 5:55 left in the third quarter, McDaniel was suddenly tearing down the UNCP sideline with his momentum-changing pick-6, and Catawba had that single spark Walker was looking for.
“I’d gotten beat deep right before that, so I’m sure they were looking for me to bail out, and they were going to hit the short pass in front of me,” McDaniel said. “But I didn’t bail. I was sitting right there when the ball came. It was a chance to make a play. The team needed it.”
Barely a minute later, Catawba scored again. Receiver Carlos Tarrats took a handoff on a reverse and then fired deep to Nate Charest for a 68-yard TD connection. Tarrats was a great baseball player in Florida, and his arm is strong.
UNCP answered with a short-field TD, but when David Burgess broke a 24-yard scoring run up the middle, Catawba trailed 31-24 with 11 minutes still to play.
Connor Haskins’ field goal for UNCP proved decisive. His 48-yarder out of the hold of former A.L. Brown QB Jonathan Efird came with 7:59 remaining and put the Braves ahead two scores.
“Connor’s kicked some big ones this year, Efird said. “This was the biggest.”
Danny O’Brien (253 passing yards) fired a 9-yard scoring dart to Tarrats to make it 34-31 with 3:41 left.
Catawba used its three timeouts but couldn’t get the ball back. With UNCP facing third-and 6 at its 44, Charles hit Rich for a gain of 6 yards and 1 inch, and the Braves owned coach Pete Shinnick’s 100th career win.
“They got that first down by the nose of the football,” Walker said. “But we kept playing today and we kept fighting. I’m prouder of this team right now than when we won at Carson-Newman.”
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