COLLEGE FOOTBALL: Catawba forces 7 turnovers in victory
By Mike London
WINGATE — Prior to Saturday’s steamy South Atlantic Conference game, not a single player in the Catawba program, even sixth-year seniors T.J. Olsen and C.J. Barksdale, had ever beaten Wingate.
But now they all have.
It was a refreshing victory for Catawba quarterback Mike Sheehan. He’d suffered through two of the worst games of his life in losses to Wingate. His career totals against the Bulldogs before Saturday’s redemption were one TD pass, four sacks and six interceptions.
“This was a long time coming,” said a satisfied Sheehan, who ran for two touchdowns and threw for two more in a 48-26 South Atlantic Conference victory.
The Indians forced seven turnovers — five fumbles, two interceptions — and crushed the Bulldogs at sun-splashed Irwin Belk Stadium. It was 48-13 when Catawba called the dogs off. Yardage gained ended up even, but when it still mattered, Catawba’s defense handled Wingate’s offense and Catawba’s offense had its way with Wingate’s defense.
“A complete game, with a lot of things coming together for us,” Catawba coach Curtis Walker said. “On both sides of the ball, guys did as we asked today. Our defense played very well, forcing turnovers. We also believe we have an offense capable of putting up a lot of points.”
Catawba’s recent history against Wingate had been tragic, but Saturday was different.
The key was all those turnovers. Inside linebacker Michael Peppers and freshman cornerback Cris Page produced interceptions. Cornerback Case Woodard scooped and scored for a 54-yard touchdown, fielding a second-quarter fumble on the run and sprinting down the Wingate sideline for the stunning TD that made it 21-3.
Inside linebacker Trey Evans forced a fumble and recovered two. Outside linebacker Jamal Lackey got a fumble. On the second-half kickoff, there was another fumble caused by a loud lick by freshman L.J. Melvin.
Cataba (2-2, 2-0 SAC) came into the game with eight forced turnovers in three outings. That’s not bad, but everyone wanted more.
“Getting turnovers was the point of emphasis,” Peppers said. “We worked hard on the turnover circuit all week in practice and we came here today saying, ‘Let’s force turnovers.'”
Catawba didn’t move the ball on its first possession, but Page’s interception return allowed the Indians to start their second possession at the Wingate 30. Sheehan hit Bruce Smith with a pass at the 10, and Smith dragged a host of tacklers to the 5-yard line. Joseph Dress punched in the game’s first points, and Brennan Lambert’s PAT made it 7-0.
With Catawba leading 7-3 in the second quarter, Woodard dislodged the ball from the grasp of Wingate receiver Jordan Berry with a hit. Evans fell on the ball at the Wingate 43.
Sheehan’s pass to Dress for 23 yards got the Indians moving, and Eamon Smart plowed for 14 yards to set up first-and-goal at the 9. Sheehan got the TD on the ground from the 5, and it was 14-3.
“It’s one thing to force turnovers,” Sheehan said. “When you start turning the field position turnovers gave us into points, that’s when you’ve got something. Today, we did that.”
Wingate’s star back Lawrence Pittman came into the game leading Division II with 10 rushing TDs, and the home crowd roared when he wiggled and weaved for a 14-yard gain. But Catawba safety Chris Carpenter knocked the ball loose at the end of the run at the Catawba 46, and suddenly Woodard was going the other way with it. His touchdown made it 21-3.
Lineman Trevor Bembry, outside linebacker Kyle Kitchens and Lackey led the defensive charge, and Catawba took that 21-3 lead to halftime.
The second half began with potential disaster for Wingate when it lost a fumble on the kickoff.
Catawba quickly pushed to the 2-yard line. It appeared the Indians would make it 28-3, but it was Wingate’s turn for a fumble return TD. Dress lost the ball at the 2, and Cornel went 98 yards to make it 21-10. It was a huge swing. Momentum briefly changed.
“I know our offense felt bad about that turnover,” Walker said. “But they banded together and put that mistake behind them. What we really needed was a long drive to let the defense rest, and they gave it to us.”
It was a crisp, 75-yard, four-minute drive. Smart moved the chains, and then freshman back Quientel Goodwin moved them. Then Sheehan converted a third down with a run.
Then Sheehan hit Jourdan Osinksie, the slot receiver on the right side, for a 34-yard TD.
“That definitely was the key drive of the day,” Sheehan said.
That drive made it 28-10, and Catawba was back in control.
After a fumble recovery by Evans at the Wingate 48, Catawba went ahead 35-10 late in the third quarter. Sheehan got the TD, slicing into the end zone off a good block by Goodwin.
Sheehan stuck in the dagger early in the fourth quarter. On a third-and-8, he dropped a strike into the arms of Sam Mobley, who was flying down the Catawba sideline, for a 67-yard scoring play.
The conservative play would’ve been to run the ball up the middle, eat a little clock and punt. But Catawba went for the knockout — and was rewarded with a TD that made it 42-13.
“We faked the run and it sucked the safety in a little bit,” Sheehan said. “We had maximum (blocking) protection. Mobley had one-on-one coverage, and he can run. That’s a play we practice all the time, and it was good to see it carry ove.”
After an interception by Peppers, Catawba backup QB Reid Carlton scored the rushing TD that made it 48-13 with 11:29 remaining. Wingate (3-1, 1-1 SAC) didn’t quit and got two TDs in the stretch run.
Pittman rushed 21 times for 155 yards despite Catawba concentrating on slowing him down.
“As a defense, we accepted the challenge of trying to stop him today, but he’s probably the best back in our league,” Evans said. “He’s a great player and all respect to him. It’s not like he’s going to be shut him down.”
It was Page, the freshman corner, who had a bruising collision with Pittman very early.
“I was surprised he fell — but he did fall,” Page said.
The previously unbeaten Bulldogs also fell on Saturday, and in surprisingly one-sided fashion.
“We’re much better than we showed today,” Wingate head coach Joe Reich said. “But we can’t turn the ball over multiple times and we’ve got to execute much better.”
NOTES: Woodard had an interception and a long return wiped out by a roughing the passer penalty. … Catawba is at Newberry next Saturday. That’s another tough opponent. “We knew coming in that we’d have to playoff-level football in our first five games,” Evans said.