College Football: Kitchens sparks Catawba to 5-2 record

Published 10:45 pm Saturday, October 17, 2015

By Mike London

SALISBURY — Mars Hill threw everything but the kitchen sink at Catawba, but then linebacker Kyle Kitchens sunk Mars Hill with a pick-six that led to a 29-10 victory and the Indians’ 500th football win.
Catawba played backs-to-the-wall football for a long time Saturday at Shuford Stadium and was clinging to a 7-3 lead in the SAC contest in the second quarter.
Mars Hill had first-and-goal at the Catawba 9, eager for a go-ahead score, but end C.J. Barksdale blew up two straight running plays. That forced Mars Hill to try the air on third down. That’s when quarterback Matt Layman found Kitchens wide open at the 10-yard line.
“The quarterback just kind of threw the ball to me, and the ball was suddenly in my hands,” Kitchens said cheerfully. “Then I started getting blocks from 10 guys, and I had (linebacker) Jamal Lackey running beside me.”
Unless, he fell down, Kitchens was going to score. He stayed on his feet for an exhausting, 90-yard return that gave the Indians (5-2, 3-1 SAC) a 14-3 halftime lead. That play changed everything.
Catawba got a quick score for a 7-0 lead when quarterback Mike Sheehan threw in the flat to Carlos Tarrats, and a Mars Hill DB gambled and lost on a pick attempt. With only grass in front of him, Tarrats swiftly motored 55 yards. That explosive play led to Sheehan’s scoring dash from the 17.
But the rest of the first 30 minutes, with the exception of Kitchens’ romp, belonged to the Lions (2-5, 1-2 SAC).
Mars Hill had 159 rushing yards in the first half and out-gained the Indians 273-134.
“We weren’t doing a lot offensively, but we didn’t turn it over,” Sheehan said. “We never had that backbreaking bad play. We never put our defense in a really bad position.”
The Lions entered the red zone four times in the first half but had only a 34-yard field goal by Dylan Barnes to show for it.
“We were in some sticky situations on defense,” Catawba coach Curtis Walker said. “But while Mars Hill had some nice plays, we were always able to stiffen at the right time.”
Mars Hill coach Tim Clifton is certain the Lions lost this one in the first half.
“We kept getting to the 20, but we couldn’t get in the end zone,” Clifton said. “We needed to take advantage of those chances, and we just didn’t. You can’t not capitalize against a good team like Catawba. They’re really good on defense, they kick it good, and they can control the ball on offense.”
When Mars Hill receiver Keshaun Taylor busted loose on a 63-yard run with 6:49 left in the third quarter, Catawba’s lead was down to 14-10, and it was time for 2,051 fans to get nervous.
“Taylor is a great player,” Clifton said. “Just a sophomore and a real talent. He can run it and he can catch it.”
Through three quarters, Mars Hill’s offensive advantage was 365 yards to 213, and Catawba was only 2-for-10 on turning third downs into first downs.
But Catawba’s offense finished like a whirlwind. Mostly it was the offensive line and the running game, and Sheehan (113 rushing yards) keyed the running game. Catawba produced 137 of its 242 rushing yards in the final quarter.
Catawba drove 73 yards to score early in the fourth quarter. A pass interference call helped, and Sheehan reeled off runs of 15 and 13 yards before he hit Gary Williams for an 18-yard touchdown in the right corner of the end zone to make it 20-10. It was only the fourth TD pass of the season for the Indians.
“We started playing the way we should’ve been playing the whole game and doing what we should’ve been doing,” Catawba’s aggressive left guard Quinzavious Sands said. “They couldn’t stop our inside running plays, couldn’t stop the quarterback draw.”
Catawba tacked on a bizarre 2-point conversion. After Mars Hill blocked the PAT kick, Indians picked up the live ball and plowed to the end zone. Tight end Andy Hunt was credited with the score that made it 22-10.
“We just kind of settled in and calmed down at the end of the third quarter and for all of the fourth quarter,” Sheehan said. “We started executing one play at a time.”
Down 12 points, the Lions pushed to the Catawba 26, but they were turned away one more time by the Indians. Cornerback Mark McDaniel broke up a third-down pass. Then corner Case Woodard had a desperate, fourth-down throw well-defended.
Gaining momentum and confidence, Catawba rolled 74 yards to achieve breathing room. Sheehan broke a 44-yard run on a second-and-12 play. Then Davie Burgess sprinted through a gaping hole and a tiring Mars Hill line for a 32-yard TD. The run put Burgess over 1,000 yards for his career.
“Catawba did a good job of blocking everybody, our defensive backs were in man coverage running with their men, and it was hard to account for the quarterback,” Clifton said. “And Sheehan is a good runner. He sees the field.”
After one more Catawba defensive stop and a 22-yard Sheehan-to-Tarrats completion, Catawba was officially 5-2 at this juncture of the season for the first time since 2010. Catawba, which hasn’t had a winning SAC record since 2010, also is 3-1 in the league for the first time since 2010.
“We always ask our offense to score one time, and we’ll win the ballgame,” Kitchens said. “But I was proud of the way guys ran the ball today and proud of the way the offensive line blocked. In the fourth quarter, we were pounding them.”
For Walker, it’s been one day at a time and one game at a time, but he smiled wider and longer on Saturday than at any time in his three years at the helm. Wingate’s win against Lenoir-Rhyne Saturday threw the SAC into a free-for-all, and for the first time in a long time, Catawba is part of the melee.
“There’s a lot of parity in our league, and our young men have worked extremely hard to be in the good position that they are in today,” Walker said. “Our offense executed better. They executed up to a point, and that’s a point where we can be successful.”
Catawba will host UNC Pembroke next Saturday at 1:30 p.m.