College Football: Crushing OT loss for Catawba

Published 11:06 pm Saturday, September 29, 2018

By Mike London

SALISBURY — Catawba doesn’t look like a 1-3 football team, doesn’t think of itself as a 1-3 football team, but that’s where the Indians are after dropping a 33-30 overtime struggle to rival Carson-Newman on Saturday afternoon at sun-splashed Shuford Stadium.

Catawba had the ball first in overtime, but had to settle for Lee Brackman’s third field goal. Carson-Newman moved the necessary 25 yards for a touchdown on four rushing plays — and celebrated.

“What a great example of college football,” winning coach Mike Turner said. “If they were all like that, you could charge people double. That was toe-to-toe. Our guys played with heart and they played united. If they hadn’t played united, this one would’ve gotten away from us. There was plenty of adversity.”

Catawba is talented enough to put people in adverse situations. The Indians benefited from 197 rushing yards and two long touchdowns from blazer Kenyatta Greene and got 110 more yards from Demonte Good, the other half of the Indians’ 1-2 ground punch.

But a lot of Catawba’s impressive-looking 307 rushing yards came in three huge chunks, 54-yard and 66-yard dashes by Greene, plus a 53-yard romp by Good. Carson-Newman’s gains were grimier and steadier, 5, 6 or 7 yards at a clip. The Eagles kept the ball, controlled the game for long stretches.

Carson-Newman limited Catawba’s aerial attack, holding all-world tight end Jourdan Osinskie to one measly catch for 4 yards.

“That was a major part of our game plan,” Turner said. “Osinskie is a great player.”

Will Sweeper was still Will Sweeper, pulling in three solid gainers to lead Catawba’s pass-catchers. He was responsible for 101 of QB Reid Carlton’s 132 aerial yards.

Defensively, Catawba got an incredible 18 tackles from linebacker Jeremiah Ferguson, but the Eagles refused to be stopped. Carson-Newman’s backs came to town averaging 7 yards per carry and they were able to grind 6.2 per attempt against a determined Catawba defense. Toot Johnson’s 68-yard scoring burst early in the second half helped inflate Carson-Newman’s 350 rushing yards a bit.

Catawba tried some things defensively. Normally a 4-2-5 defense to combat spread offenses, Catawba displayed a 5-2-4 alignment against run-heavy Carson-Newman. Linebacker L.J. Melvin, often Catawba’s leading tackler,  played as a 9-technique, a very wide defensive end, on that five-man front.

The plan was to stop the dive play element of Carson-Newman’s triple-option, then stop the quarterback keeper and force Carson-Newman’s slick QB Derrick Evans to pitch the ball,  because those pitches are where Carson-Newman is susceptible to fumbles. But Evans didn’t have to pitch it much. He completed a few passes, made key runs, operated the Eagles’ offense smoothly, overcame penalties.

“To their credit, Carson-Newman took care of the football,” Catawba head coach Curtis Walker said. “They never put it on the ground. We couldn’t get a turnover all day.”

Catawba turned it over twice. Carlton threw two interceptions. One was unlucky, a carom off receiver Devonte Tanksley.  Neither turnover was a huge factor, as Catawba’s defense came through with quick stops after both.

It went well for the Indians early. Just two minutes into the game, Greene came flying through a crease and he’s not a guy who’s going to be caught from behind. He went 54 yards. Brackman’s PAT, the first of his 12 points, made it 7-0.

Carson-Newman’s offense sputtered early — Ferguson and Melvin were all over the place — but the Eagles were starting to click by the end of the first quarter. The Eagles scored back-to-back touchdowns in the second quarter, with Demitri Saulsberry and Antonio Wimbush doing the honors. Wimbush’s score was officially a reception, but it was almost a lateral from Evans.

Catawba countered with another whirlwind effort from Greene. This time he went 66.  Catawba led 14-12 at the break.

“We made some exciting, explosive plays,” Walker said.

Catawba (1-3, 0-2 SAC) hasn’t lost often in recent years when leading at halftime, but Carson-Newman (3-2, 2-1 SAC) played with furious desperation. Both teams had lost the previous week and were in circle-the-wagons mode. Catawba’s defense had collapsed at Mars Hill. Carson-Newman’s offense had faltered against Newberry. But there wasn’t any collapsing for faltering on Saturday. Both teams dug in.

Johnson’s long run put the Eagles up 18-14. They executed on a surprise pass for a 2-point conversion to make it 20-14.

That’s when Sweeper stepped forward. On a third-and-12, Carlton hit Sweeper for 51 yards down the right sideline to set up first-and-goal at the Carson-Newman 3. Carson-Newman’s defense denied Good twice, but Carlton scored on third down from the 1. Brackman’s PAT with 9:42 left in the third quarter gave the Indians a 21-20 lead.

Carlton’s 40-yard connection with Sweeper on the final snap of the third quarter led to a field goal. Brackman was accurate from 38 yards and nudged the Indians’ precarious lead to 24-20.

“We were starting to think this is going to be whoever’s-got-it-last kind of game,” Turner said.

That’s exactly what it became.

The pressure was on the Eagles in the fourth quarter, but Evans led them 75 yards on 10 plays. Marcus Williams, Sherron Jackson and Wimbush pounded away at the tiring Indians. Jackson broke through for 22 yards to the Catawba 15. Williams scored two plays later, and Carson-Newman was back on top, 27-24, with 8:04 remaining.

Carlton was banged up in the fourth quarter, not so badly he had to come out, but badly enough to hurt his accuracy.

Catawba was nearly stopped on a shaky possession, but Osinskie drew a pass interference flag on  fourth-and-10. That put Catawba in field-goal range. The Indians relied on Greene to run the ball late, and Brackman kicked a 41-yard field goal under pressure — Tyler McHargue made the snap and Joseph Dress the hold — with 20 seconds left in regulation to force overtime.

“Reid was hurt, couldn’t push off his leg, and we tried to take some pressure off him by running the ball,” Walker said. “Our special teams did a lot of good things today, and they got us to overtime.”

Catawba had the ball first at the 25-yard line, got a first down at the 11 on a Carlton-to-Tanksley pass, but bogged down. Brackman banged through another field goal for a 30-27 lead, but that left the door open for Carson-Newman to win with a touchdown.

Williams ran twice for 15 yards to move the ball to the 10. Then Evans surprised the Indians with a play they hadn’t seen all day or on film.

“Naked boot leg,” Melvin said. “We were able to chase the quarterback down at the sideline, Caleb Allen and me, but he got the ball inside the 5.”

Jackson took it home from there, spinning into the box from 3 yards out for the victory.

Temoris Coats was in on six tackles for loss for Carson-Newman and also had an interception. He led the Eagles’ defensive effort.

“Just a great win for Carson-Newman,” said Turner, a former Catawba assistant who had a daughter born while he was coaching in Salisbury. “Just very proud. Our kids extended themselves today and played the way they can. Catawba is good. They’re going to beat a lot of people.”

Catawba didn’t make the playoffs in 2017 despite a 9-2 record. Now the Indians are 1-3. That’s not encouraging.

“We get everyone’s best shot, and this was another very tough loss,” Walker said. “But our senior leadership is strong. We’ll get back where we need to be.”

Melvin, a leader on Catawba’s defense, agreed.

“I know it looks grim right now, but there’s a whole lot of season left,” he said. “Upsets happen. Teams get knocked off. You never know who’s going to make the playoffs. We’ll keep moving forward. We’ll stay together as a team.”