College Football: Catawba’s season ends
By Mike London
SALISBURY — Catawba moved the ball against one of the nation’s top defenses, but it was Tuskegee’s Golden Tigers who moved on to the second round of the NCAA Division II playoffs.
Third-seeded Catawba (9-3) had 415 yards of offense, 75 more than Tuskegee, but sixth-seeded and 23rd-ranked Tuskegee (9-2) made the key plays and beat the 25th-ranked Indians, 26-16, for the first playoff win in school history.
“We told our guys they had a great opportunity in the playoffs because that means we’re considered to be one of the top 28 teams in the country,” Tuskegee coach Willie Slater said. “They listened to us, and we’re excited to make it past the first round.”
Catawba quarterback Mike Sheehan was courageous and tenacious in the face of constant pressure. He was 38-for-47 passing for 305 yards and a touchdown, but there also were four sacks and two interceptions, including a back-breaking pick-six by Tuskegee’s star linebacker, Jewell Ratliff, the SIAC Player of the Year.
“I felt like at times we moved the ball down the field almost at will,” Sheehan said. “But we didn’t finish our drives off.”
That Sheehan had to put the ball in the air 47 times was proof that Tuskegee wouldn’t let the Indians do what they planned to do. Catawba usually runs the ball effectively and controls the tempo of a game, but an injury to leading rusher Cary Littlejohn really hurt, and Ratliff (10 tackles) was hard to run through or around.
“We wanted to be balanced,” Catawba coach Curtis Walker said. “But we couldn’t run the ball.”
Receiver Gary Williams had 66 rushing yards on two electric carries, but Catawba netted only 85 rushing yards. Sheehan has been putting up 100-yard rushing games recently, mostly on designed draws, but he had minus-10 yards on the ground.
“Runs by the quarterback killed us two weeks ago (a loss to Miles), but we executed the defensive game plan today,” Slater said.
All Tuskegee’s defense was giving Catawba was the short pass. Carlos Tarrats made a school-record 14 receptions, mostly on bubble screens and hitches, and used his quickness to turn those short flips into 103 receiving yards.
“Their DBs were back-pedaling 15 yards,” Tarrats said. “Those plays were there for us.”
The offensive standouts for Tuskegee were 6-foot-6 quarterback Kevin Lacey (219 passing yards, two TDs) and Michigan transfer Dennis Norfleet (88 rushing yards, 32 receiving yards, 54 return yards).
Lacey was on fire early. He lofted a beautiful 39-yard TD pass to Peyton Ramzy to cap a game-opening 72-yard drive that stunned a Shuford Stadium crowd of 2,473.
Undaunted, Catawba punched the ball right down the field five yards at a time, but a sharp, 15-play drive ultimately faltered at the Tuskegee 7-yard line when Sheehan was hurried into an incompletion.
Kicker Chad Hollandsworth came in for the chip-shot field goal, but Tuskegee’s Cedric Cuff blocked it, taking some air out of the Indians and some optimism out of the crowd.
Then Lacey went right back to work with completions of 45 and 25 yards to set up a 2-yard scoring run by Jerome Lewis.
“We had a great plan,” Lacey said. “When you stick to the game plan, it works. You just have to execute. The guys were following me, and I wanted to make plays for them.”
After 11 minutes and two Tuskegee possessions, Lacey’s arm had put Catawba in a 14-0 hole.
“Yes, we got behind early,” Walker said. “But we continued to fight.”
Led by linebackers Kyle Kitchens (two sacks), Trey Evans and Jamal Lackey, Catawba’s vaunted defense dug in after that early shell-shock. It was still 14-0 at halftime.
Late in the third quarter, it was still 14-0, but that’s when the game suddenly changed. A reverse pass from receiver Keyon West to Williams gained 25 yards and revived the crowd.
On the next play, Williams benefited from hard-nosed blocks on a reverse sweep and sped 45 yards down the Catawba sideline for the touchdown that cut Tuskegee’s lead to 14-7.
“We got a little creative on offense and we made some plays,” Walker said.
When C.J. Jones recovered a fumble by Norfleet near midfield on Catawba’s ensuing kickoff, the Indians were back in business. This time, Catawba pushed to the 8-yard line before it was stopped. Hollandsworth made a 25-yard field goal with 13:31 left in the game, and Catawba trailed, 14-10.
Tuskegee had been shut down by Catawba’s defense a long time, and now the Golden Tigers faced a crisis. Momentum had swung, but they reclaimed it with an emphatic four-play scoring drive. Lacey hit Norfleet for 30 yards. Then Lacey ran for 18 yards. After a 3-yard run by Norfleet, Lacey threw a touchdown pass to Leo Gilbert with 11:23 left to play. The Indians blocked the PAT, but Tuskegee was back in control at 20-10.
“They had all day to pass, and their quarterback sat in the pocket and made outstanding plays,” Walker said. “That quick drive after we had fought our way back took a lot out of us.”
Ratliff took even more out of the Indians with his 45-yard pick-six with 7:27 left. It came with Catawba facing second-and-15 at the Catawba 37.
“They ran a play that we saw the whole game,” Ratliff said. “I’d been getting out of position some, but I locked my eyes on the quarterback, stayed in position and made the pick.”
Ratliff joked that his tackle-dodging trip down the Catawba sideline took him back to the ninth grade when he was a running back. It was the eighth Tuskegee defensive touchdown of the season and the third for Ratliff. A try for a two-point conversion failed, but the Golden Tigers led, 26-10.
“That play kind of sealed our fate,” Walker said.
The Indians made one last uphill charge and scored a quick touchdown with 6:12 remaining. Sheehan passed to West for 27 yards, found Tarrats for 13, and threaded a pass to Bruce Smith, who made a diving grab for 31. Catawba scored on a 4-yard reception by West at the goal-line. That made it 26-16. With a 2-point conversion there was still some hope, but a halfback pass by David Burgess failed.
Catawba kicked off deep. Tuskegee moved the chains twice and knocked three minutes off the clock before turning the ball over on downs at the Catawba 31.
When a Sheehan pass to Davie Burgess on a fourth-and-7 play was stopped 2 yards short of the sticks by Ratliff, it was over. Then it was time for a Gatorade bath for Slater and kneel-downs by Lacey.
Slater quickly turned his thoughts to the daunting task of traveling to North Alabama next week. North Alabama crushed Newberry yesterday, 50-7.
“The next one is the most important one and we have to get back to work and focus on North Alabama,” Slater said. “I’ve seen some strange things happen in the playoffs.”
The loss ended a stellar season for Catawba. Walker praised his staff, players and fans for nine wins. An outright SAC championship and a playoff berth were major steps forward for the program.
“Our senior group put in a tremendous amount of work and gave us great leadership,” said Sheehan, a junior. “It’s tough right now, but it was a good season.”
Kitchens, a sophomore who was SAC Defensive Player of the Year, got in the last word.
“I hate it ended today, but our coaches have molded us into a winning team and winning should be a normal thing now,” Kitchens said. “We’re going to keep going. Next year, we’ll be going all the way.”