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Catawba wants to break cycle

SALISBURY — Catawba’s football team plays an important SAC game at 1:30 p.m. Saturday at Wingate’s Irwin Belk Stadium.
Wingate qualifies as one of the Indians’ three big rivals — Lenoir-Rhyne and Carson-Newman being the other two — and the Indians are 1-9 in their last 10 games against that trio. The Indians have dropped five of their last six against Wingate, and winning a game against a rival is imperative.
The general perception is that Catawba is better than it’s been since 2007. The learning-experience loss to Western Carolina was expected. The loss to Carson-Newman could’ve gone either way. Two of Catawba’s three wins have been emphatic. The other came at Newberry against a good team that whipped Wingate.
At practice this week, head coach Curtis Walker told his team he was “having a ball.” Players and fans are as well. There’s a lot of optimism. A win at Wingate reinforces those positive feelings.
“We just want a win,” Walker said. “We’ll take 55-51 or we’ll take 2-0.”
Walker’s motivational skills are good. Catawba (3-2, 2-1 SAC) has played five times and has shown up to play all five times.
“There have been no disappointments as far as effort,” Walker said. “There have been times we could’ve played smarter, but the level of play, the level of effort has been what we wanted.”
Catawba has been close to outstanding on offense. Sophomore quarterback Mike Sheehan has emerged as one of the league’s best players with 10 TD passes and only three interceptions.
“Our first half against Tusculum last week was as good a half of football as I’ve ever been part of at any level,” Sheehan said.
Catawba’s offense averages 479 yards per game, and it’s balanced. The Indians rank 25th in rushing out of 167 D-II teams with 228 yards per game. They are 58th in passing with 251 yards per game. Catawba runs when opponents overplay the pass, and Catawba throws when opponents overplay the run. It wasn’t long ago Catawba could not get a running game going. Now, the offensive line is good and getting better. The running backs — all four of them — are good. It all adds up to Catawba scoring 34.6 points per game.
Wingate (3-2, 0-2 SAC) has been beaten handily by Lenoir-Rhyne and Newberry, but coach Joe Reich’s Bulldogs present challenges for the Indians.
“They’re very good on defense,” Walker said.
The stats back up that statement. Wingate’s defense has been significantly better than its offense. The Bulldogs allow 314 yards per game, 33rd in the country. Catawba allows 384 yards per game.
Catawba’s defense has not been as fortunate as the offense when it comes to injuries. Key players — linebackers Ed Robinson and Trey Evans, lineman C.J. Barksdale and safety Chris Carpenter — are sidelined. Freshman corner Rai Smith and freshman safety Marvin Motley are starting in the secondary alongside veterans Philip George and Mark McDaniel.
“I look at Philip as my role model, and I’m learning from him,” Smith said.
Freshman Michael Peppers has been elevated to a starting role at inside linebacker, and sophomore R.J. Beaty is now the top backup at both inside linebacker posts. Beaty was pressed into his first serious action against Carson-Newman and has played well the last two weeks.
“You have to step in and play like no one’s missing,” Beaty said.
Senior Jason Taylor, the other starting inside linebacker and the leader of the defense, is hurting but still leads the team with 42 tackles. Taylor and outside linebacker Jamal Lackey have six tackles for loss apiece.
If the Indians can weather the defensive injuries and win on the road against a nemesis, it will be an important step on the road back to contention.
Follow Mike London on Twitter at @mikelondonpost3.

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