Published 12:00 am Sunday, November 3, 2013

SALISBURY — Catawba quarterback Danny O’Brien made a half-flip, half-dive into the end zone for the game-deciding touchdown and reacted by bouncing around like he’d just won the Rose Bowl.
“A game-winning touchdown, even it’s in your own backyard, is pretty exciting,” said a smiling O’Brien, who transferred to Catawba for his final college season after playing at Maryland and Wisconsin. “When we started this season we wanted to go undefeated, but we lost some close ones, and now the goal is a winning season. I like to think a winning season will help all the Catawba teams in the future.”
O’Brien was dazzling in the first half of Catawba’s 38-31 victory against Mars Hill on Saturday.
At the break, O’Brien already had 253 passing yards, including TD tosses to Bruce Smith and Nate Charest, but Mars Hill QB Trent Miller was matching him, and the Lions and Indians were deadlocked 24-all.
Catawba (5-4, 3-3 SAC) was fortunate to be tied. Mars Hill (2-7, 0-5 SAC) kicked a 44-yard field goal after being penalized on a faked field goal that might have gone for six.
“We would’ve walked in for a touchdown on the fake,” Mars Hill coach Tim Clifton said. “Unfortunately, we jumped offsides.”
The defenses made their halftime adjustments, and it got harder for both teams to move the ball.
The Lions went ahead 31-24 on Miller’s 3-yard pass to Jamel Hall late in the third quarter, and Catawba, its offense stagnant, appeared to be in trouble.
The game changed, however, when Catawba’s Lorenzo Pooler broke a 58-yard run on a second-and-2 play that went from the Catawba 31 all the way to the Mars Hill 11.
“We pulled a guard, and I saw a big hole and I hit it full speed,” Pooler said. “You can’t look back, but I looked back. That’s why they were able to walk me down (on the 11).”
Catawba scored two plays later. O’Brien fired a slider, low and away, but freshman Carlos Tarrats made a remarkable diving catch in the end zone with 5:56 left.
“I ran a corner post, and when they played me outside, I turned right back inside and was open,” Tarrats said. “I had to do way down for the throw, but I was able to get it.”
“Carlos showed a lot of maturity today for a young guy,” O’Brien added. “He wasn’t involved much in the first half, but I told him at halftime he’d make a play for us. He was patient and he hung in there and when he had a chance to strike, he did.”
Tarrats’ catch made it 31-30 Lions, and Chad Hollandsworth kicked the pressure-packed PAT that tied it.
Next, Troy Mitchell executed on a pooch kick.
“We field that kickoff and there’s still five minutes left and we can run the ball or do whatever we want to do,” Clifton said. “But we just didn’t field it.”
Catawba cornerback Gary Williams made an all-out dive for the ball. Then he won a wrestling match in the pile.
“I’d been sprinting down every time we kicked off, but this one time they miscommunicated,” Williams said. “I put my body out there. I had to fight for the ball, but that’s what the weight room is for.”
Williams gave Catawba’s offense the ball at the Mars Hill 35, and the Indians punched it in from there. Cary Littlejohn did most of the work, and O’Brien made his decisive dash to the end zone on third-and-goal from the 4.
“They had everyone covered, so I tucked it,” he said. “We had momentum, and I was hoping momentum would take me to the end zone.”
It did. Barely.
After Catawba’s defense made one more stop, the o-line banged out one more first down, and it was over.
“Both teams played hard, but we didn’t make plays at the end and Catawba did,” Clifton said. “Injuries and not making enough plays — that’s been the story of our season.”
Catawba coach Curtis Walker exhaled after the tight win. He knew Mars Hill was better than its record, and the Indians hadn’t won at home since opening day.
“In the first half we did a lot of things the way we were supposed to do them, but then I got a little upset when we stopped,” Walker said. “Fortunately, those last five minutes we made the plays we needed to make. Guys were telling me how great it felt to win today, but that’s a feeling that should be natural for them.”