College Football: Catawba takes first loss, at Carson-Newman

Published 10:29 pm Saturday, September 30, 2017

By Mike London

JEFFERSON CITY, Tenn. –  Carson-Newman still has never lost three straight football games to Catawba.

Catawba, ranked 23rd in NCAA Division II, was cast in the favorite’s role, a rarity in the 51-game history of the series. But the Indians, usually focused and ferocious on the road, got pounded physically on the field turf at Burke-Tarr Stadium. The final was 31-18.

The Eagles (3-2, 1-2 SAC) had their backs to the wall after consecutive South Atlantic Conference losses to Wingate and Newberry, but they gave first-year head coach Mike Turner, a Catawba assistant many decades ago, the biggest victory of his short tenure.

Carson-Newman completed only two passes, both screens, but the Eagles employed two tight ends on almost every snap and ran the ball 59 times for a season-high 333 yards. On the flip side, Carson-Newman’s defense held Catawba well below its normal offensive numbers. The Indians were limited to 82 rushing yards.

“I didn’t have any sense going in that we would not play at the best of our abilities,” said disappointed Catawba head coach Curtis Walker, who is now 3-2 against the Eagles. “But hats off to Carson-Newman and Coach Turner. They executed their game plan.”

Catawba’s defense was able to stop Carson-Newman on 10 of its 15 third-down plays, but the Eagles were 3-for-3 converting short-yardage fourth downs. They also blasted for huge running plays, including a back-breaking, 65-yard sprint by Jared Dillingham in the third quarter for a 28-10 lead. Dillingham had a career day with 145 rushing yards.

“Their yards per running play (5.6) were  inflated by those big plays we gave up,” Walker said. “But they did execute very well in the run game.”

Catawba quarterback Patrick O’Brien experienced his first tough outing at the helm of the Indians. O’Brien, who entered the game leading the SAC in touchdown passes and with only one interception, was sacked twice and threw two picks. O’Brien’s 228 passing yards were boosted considerably by an 86-yard screen pass to Kenyatta Greene that came when the game was all but over.

“We had a decent pass rush, that’s always first,” Turner said. “We played some underneath coverage and had linebackers who made great drops.”

Workhorse back Eamon Smart, who has been piling up 100-yard outings for the Indians, was held to 63 yards on 13 carries. Greene was held to 20 rushing yards.  Carson-Newman contained Catawba’s all-world receiver Sam Mobley, limiting him to five catches and 70 yards.

“Carson-Newman did a good job defensively,” Walker said. “We couldn’t make enough plays.”

It couldn’t have started off much better for the Indians, who accepted the opening kickoff and drove 75 yards to score, with the aid of a roughing-the-passer penalty on a third-and-long at the Carson-Newman 49. On third-and-goal at the 9, O’Brien was looking for Mobley. His pass was tipped by a linebacker, but Smart made a diving catch in the end zone. Lee Brackman’s PAT put the Indians up, 7-0.

Carson-Newman took over after that. Carson-Newman quarterback Derrick Evans broke a 55-yard keeper on a second-and-10 play, and it was 7-7.

Catawba could only return the ensuing kickoff to the 13-yard-line. After O’Brien was sacked on third-and-long, Caleb Berry was punting from his end zone. He got off a decent boot, but Carson-Newman took over on the Catawba 41 and took advantage of the short field. The Indians gave ground grudgingly as the first quarter melted into the second. It  took 12 running plays for the Eagles to move those 41 yards, but on fourth-and-goal from the 1, Demetri Saulsbury put the ball in the end zone. The Eagles led 14-7 at halftime.

“Down a touchdown, we still felt we had a good chance,” Walker said. “But we knew there probably weren’t going to be a lot of possessions.  It was going to be critical to stop them on their first possession of the second half — and then to score on our first one.”

Adjustments were made on both sides. Brackman’s touchback made the Eagles start the second half at their 25, but they charged 75 yards in a grinding march that took over six minutes. They converted on fourth-and-1 at the Catawba 26, and then again on fourth-and-1 at the Catawba 4. Evans rushed for the TD from the 3. Catawba was down 21-7.

No one had scored against Catawba in the third quarter all season, so that inexorable drive was telling. It was going to be Carson-Newman’s day.

Catawba tried to respond and advanced the ball quickly with a 32-yard run by Smart and a 34-yard completion from O’Brien to Mobley to the Carson-Newman 6. After an incomplete pass, Smart smashed the ball to the 1-yard line. But on third down, Catawba had a false start from veteran left tackle Brandon Floyd. Moved back to the 6, O’Brien threw incomplete, targeting tight end Jourdan Osinskie. On fourth down, Catawba had to settle for a Brackman field goal and trailed 21-10.

“It hurt, failing to finish that drive because opportunities were there,” Walker said.

What happened next hurt more, and went a long way to seal the Indians’ doom. On a first-down play, Dillingham got loose on his 65-yard jaunt to make it 28-10 with 4:22 left in the third quarter. That put Catawba  in a desperate situation, and mistakes accumulated. There was a 17-yard sack that stopped Catawba’s next possession. Then an interception.

Omar Staley blocked a long Carson-Newman field goal attempt, but the Indians were stopped for a loss on a pass play when they had fourth-and-1 at the Carson-Newman 15.

Time became as much of an enemy as the Eagles at that point, and O’Brien was picked off for the second time with  seven minutes left to play.

With 3:10 remaining, Greene turned a screen into his 86-yard touchdown. Then O’Brien tossed to Gavin Rose for a 2-point conversion to make it 28-18.

Catawba’s onside kick try failed and ended any remaining hope. Then Carson-Newman tacked on a field goal for the final margin.

“Turnovers hurt us and failing to make some plays that definitely were there hurt us,” Walker said. “We knew we would get Carson-Newman’s best shot.”

Linebacker Trey Evans and lineman Trevor Bembry were in on a dozen stops apiece for Catawba.

Walker said film revealed Carson-Newman was very dangerous, but the Eagles made crippling second-half mistakes against Wingate and Newberry.

“Today we didn’t make the mistakes that we have the past couple weeks  and our defense shut things down,” Turner said. “The satisfaction of this win after the last two weeks is really indescribable. We took a big step today against a team that was undefeated and deservedly ranked.”

Carson-Newman leads the all-time series, 38-12-1.

Catawba is at home against North Greenville next Saturday afternoon. The Eagles are at Limestone on Saturday night.