That’s more like it: Catawba thumps Carson-Newman
By Mike London
SALISBURY — Catawba’s all-region cornerback Case Woodard changed the game — and maybe the season — with his 89-yard interception return for a touchdown on Saturday at Shuford Stadium.
Woodard also blocked a punt, Catawba won the turnover battle, 5-0, and freshman Brennan Lambert kicked four field goals in a 40-20 victory in the South Atlantic Conference opener for both teams.
“This game meant a lot to us,” Catawba head coach Curtis Walker said. “We put a mark on our back by being conference champions last year and that means we get everyone’s best shot. We hadn’t played our best in our first two games, but today we did play our best. And anytime you can beat Carson-Newman, it gives you a leg up in the SAC.”
Carson-Newman (1-2, 0-1 SAC) was in high gear early, rolling for a touchdown on its first offensive possession, then reaching the Catawba 2-yard line on its second possession before linebacker Jamal Lackey made a stop and forced the Eagles to settle for a field goal.
On their third possession, leading 10-7, the Eagles were slicing through Catawba’s defense again until they had first-and-goal at the 9. After a false start and a 2-yard rush, they were looking at second-and-goal from the 12. That’s when Woodard entered the picture.
“I’d been playing off my man, but on that play I read the route that was coming, and I jumped it,” Woodard said. “I jumped it so clean that I was standing right in front of the receiver. I didn’t think the quarterback (Noah Suber) would throw it, but he threw it.”
It was one of the easier interceptions of Woodard’s life, and a young man who started his career at Carson-Newman before heading to Georgia Military Academy for seasoning and maturity before arriving at Catawba last year, took off down the Carson-Newman sideline.
It was a footrace, and Woodard is one of the faster Indians.
Woodard, who also had the game-turning pick-six against Lenoir-Rhyne in 2015, took it all the way. On the verge of falling behind 17-7, Catawba instead led, 14-10. Rarely have so many owed so much to one play.
“I was getting tired around the 50, and I thought they might catch me,” Woodard said with a laugh. “I felt a guy dive at my feet, but I picked up my knees and kept going.”
That play energized the crowd of 2,587 — and the Indians (1-2, 1-0 SAC).
“That play got us going,” said Catawba running back Eamon Smart, who pounded for 109 yards on 24 workhorse carries. “After that pick, the momentum changed and we were ready to go.”
The Catawba defense got fired up. Lackey and safety Jeremy Addison stuffed running plays with a purpose, and linebacker Michael Peppers’s pass rush hurried an incompletion for a three-and-out. And then, Woodard delivered again.
“I was dog-tired,” Woodard said. “I almost came out of the game, but I stayed in for their punt. I thought I might get a chance to make a play.”
He did. Woodard blocked the punt for field position at the Catawba 49. Then Catawba battled down to the Carson-Newman 6, and Lambert kicked his first field goal. Catawba led 17-10.
With time running out in the first half, Carson-Newman punched for 16 plays from the Carson-Newman 35 to the Catawba 8. But a tackle for loss by linebacker Trey Evans led to another stop.
Carson-Newman’s Carson Wise kicked a field goal, but Catawba led 17-13 at the break.
Catawba’s 67-yard scoring march to open the second half put the Indians in control. Smart had a 17-yard dash to midfield to get the drive going, and QB Mike Sheehan zig-zagged into the end zone from the 15 for the touchdown that made it 24-13.
Next came a fumble recovery by veteran Catawba lineman Trevor Bembry.
“We started out rocky today on defense,” Lackey said. “But then we settled in, and in the second half, we did the things that we needed to do.”
True freshman Quientel Goodwin scooted 30 yards down the right sideline for the backbreaking touchdown with 5:14 left in the third quarter, as the Indians caught two Carson-Newman linebackers blitzing, looking for a sack on a third-and-8 snap.
“They lined up in a funky defense, and we were prepared for that look,” Sheehan said. “We knew the linebackers were coming inside, and we knew if we could just get outside, we had a big play.”
Goodwin’s legs made that big play, and it was 31-13.
Carson-Newman got within 31-20 by scoring on the final play of the third quarter, but the fourth quarter included more Carson-Newman turnovers. Catawba tacked on three field goals by Lambert in a span of seven minutes. His four field goals were one shy of the school record held by former Salisbury High coach Tom Sexton. Sexton kicked five against Carson-Newman in 1978.
“The defense kept putting us in position to score,” said Lambert, a former star at South Rowan High. “It was just a great team effort, and it feels so good to get that first win.”
Catawba’s offense sparkled after two shaky games in which the Indians were 6-for-30 on third-down conversions. They converted three first downs on their successful opening drive, including two third-and-longs, and finished 8-for-15.
Sheehan had an accurate passing day, 19-for-27 for 147 yards, and found seven different receivers.
“Third-down percentage was one of the things we stressed in practice all week,” Sheehan said. “We converted third downs a lot better today, and our defense came up big. They always seem to find a way to stop Carson-Newman, and they made things easier for the offense.”
Walker said the day started out strong with a powerful devotional offered by former Catawba star Allen Simmons, and the Indians finished the afternoon with a much-needed win.
“Offensively, a lot of credit goes to (coordinator) Kevin Brown,” Walker said. “We’ve been together a long time, and today was one of the best games he’s ever coached. Credit to our defensive coaches too. We can’t simulate Carson-Newman’s speed on offense in practice, and they were getting outside on us early. But then our defense settled in and we adjusted.”
Carson-Newman hadn’t turned the ball over in its first two games, but a lot of things went wrong for the Eagles on Saturday.
“We missed a lot of tackles and we made mistakes that we haven’t been making,” Carson-Newman coach Ken Sparks said. “Catawba played with more urgency than we did.”
Carson-Newman ran more plays, rushed for more yards and passed for more yards, but the turnovers, especially the pick-six by Woodard, proved the equalizer.
Catawba plays at unbeaten Wingate next Saturday afternoon.