College Football: Losing season certain for Indians after upset loss
By Mike London
SALISBURY — Lots of things have gone awry for the Catawba Indians, and Tusculum unexpectedly piled on at sun-splashed Shuford Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
Tusculum’s 38-28 upset on Senior Day blind-sided everyone connected with Catawba football.
“It was easy to look at their record and say they weren’t a good team,” Catawba receiver Keyon West said. “But between the lines today, they were on their game.”
Prior to Tusculum’s visit, Catawba could still tell itself it was a good football team that had been unlucky with injuries and had faced a tough schedule.
But after yielding an avalanche of passing yards to the Pioneers, surrendering a kickoff return TD, and going 4-for-16 on third-down conversions, it’s hard to say that the Indians, even with most of the players who earned a 2015 SAC championship banner still on board, are very good. They didn’t win a non-conference game all season. They lost three times at home.
“This loss today hurts me because I know how many good things we have in place, and now we won’t have a winning season,” Catawba coach Curtis Walker said. “We’ve got some soul-searching to do.”
West and back David Burgess scored two touchdowns each, but the Indians (4-6, 4-2 SAC) had their struggles on offense, defense and special teams. It was a classic team effort.
“Just a pretty rough day,” defensive line stud C.J. Barksdale said. “They took the momentum from us, and then we started messing up. We lost our fire, couldn’t get it back.”
Even with cornerback Case Woodard, a probable All-American, sidelined by a foot injury in practice, things went fine for a while. DB D.J. Jackson and lineman Ryan Watts teamed up for a forced fumble and recovery, and Catawba rolled to the game’s first TD. Reid Carlton returned from an ankle injury and fired a 10-yard scoring strike to West.
“I really had to fight to get the inside on that play,” West said. “I looked up and the ball’s right there. All I had to was make a play.”
It was 7-7 early in the second quarter, when Tusculum booted a field goal, but elected to take the three points off the board when the Indians roughed the kicker. That gave Tusculum first-and-goal at the 3, but linebackers Trey Evans, Kyle Kitchens and Josh Moses made stops. Tusculum had to try another field goal, and Will Tommie missed from point-blank range.
That break put Catawba in control, and Burgess capped a 61-yard drive with a punishing, 7-yard run for a 14-7 lead. That score came with 1:26 left in the half. But in the disastrous 86 seconds that followed, Catawba lost the ballgame.
First, Jay Boyd returned Lee Brackman’s kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown and a tie game.
Catawba then went three-and-out, losing 13 yards on two negative plays.
That sequence forced the Indians to punt from their 7, and Boyd’s 17-yard punt return put Tusculum in business at the Catawba 28. Luke Lancaster whipped the first of his three TD passes to Evan Altizer 21 seconds before halftime, and the Pioneers took a 21-14 lead to the break.
“We didn’t tackle well, just didn’t do a good job defensively,” Walker said. “And it didn’t take Tusculum long to figure out we didn’t have No. 2 (Woodard) on the field.”
The momentum that Tusculum seized at the end of the first half would carry over.
“The kickoff return by Boyd (a true freshman) was the turning point in the game,” Tusculum coach Jerry Odom said. “And Catawba didn’t have a great player on the field. When a team doesn’t have a great player, it has to help the opponent some.”
As poorly as the first half ended, the Indians were still confident they’d turn things around in the third quarter. Instead Boyd picked off Carlton. That turnover led to a Tommie field goal for a 24-14 Tusculum lead.
Catawba answered with a fortunate touchdown. Joseph Dress was in at quarterback, and it appeared his pass to West on the right sideline would be intercepted. But a DB mis-timed his break, and West maintained his concentration on a 40-yard scoring play.
“I saw hand and I saw ball, but I stayed locked in,” West said.
Brennan Lambert’s PAT cut Catawba’s deficit to 24-21 with 6:39 left in the third quarter, but the Pioneers (3-7, 2-4 SAC) didn’t blink.
They’ve been playing better lately — an overtime loss to Mars Hill last week and a win against Limestone the week before that.
“Our record doesn’t look good because we’ve lost two overtime games,” Odom said. “So we’re 3-7, but not far from 5-5. Our offense was terrible early, but we have a lot of young guys who are getting better. We brought 64 here today and 30 are freshmen. We started seven or eight freshmen.”
Lancaster and Altizer, both juniors, were the key guys Odom brought. They hooked up twice for touchdowns in the first four minutes of the fourth quarter, and suddenly the visitors led, 38-21.
“They took charge,” Walker said. “They stuck it to us.”
Catawba made it 38-28 when Carlton threw to Bruce Smith for 17 yards, West drew a pass interference penalty, and Carlton fired a 28-yard scoring pass to Burgess with 5:08 left.
But it was all over when Burgess was ruled to be out of bounds when he snagged a long, desperate fourth-down pass from Carlton with 2:50 remaining.
“I caught that ball and didn’t step out until I heard a whistle,” Burgess said. “It hurt. If we get that play, we’ve still got a chance.”
Even with many missed tackles, Catawba held Tusculum to 67 net rushing yards, but the Indians were cooked by 348 passing yards. Tusculum got 16 of its 21 first downs on pass plays.
“We weren’t where we needed to be mentally as a unit,” said Evans, who made 11 tackles. “Effort, attitude, chemistry. They all need work.”
Catawba’s season suffered a blow when it lost experienced QB Mike Sheehan. Carlton has a big arm, but he was 14-for-35 with two picks and four sacks. He did have two TD passes.
“We’ve lost key guys and we’ve lost leaders,” Walker said. “We’ve got to figure it out.”
Catawba couldn’t figure it out on Saturday against a Tusculum team that had nothing to lose.
“This was the first complete game we’ve played,” Odom said. “Maybe it’ll get us over the hump. We’ve got Carson-Newman next, a big rival. To beat them would make our season.”
Catawba also faces a rival. It will travel to Lenoir-Rhyne next Saturday. The seniors can’t have a winning season, but they want to win their last game. And a closing win might provide a springboard into better days in 2017.
“We’ve got to go to work,” Burgess said. “This was a bad day. No one showed up.”