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College football: Catawba can’t get over the hump

Catawba falls to Golden Rams

Wayne Hinshaw/for the Salisbury Post
Catawba receiver Devonte Tanksley (4) runs for a touchdown after catching a pass from Avent.

By Mike London
mike.london@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY  — College football is normally a barrel of fun, but misery was the operative word for the Catawba Indians on Saturday afternoon at Shuford Stadium.

The visitors were aggressive. The heat was oppressive. The injuries were excessive.

The Indians’ losing streak reached three games in a 35-21 non-conference setback to the Albany State Golden Rams (3-3).

“It was a very tough day for us as far as injuries,” said grim Catawba head coach Curtis Walker. “We’ve got to do some soul-searching and figure out who were are and where we are right now. That whole second half, we were sitting six points behind, but we just couldn’t take advantage when we had the opportunities to take the lead. There’s a missing piece, and we’ve got to figure out what it is.”

It was closer than the final score sounds.  Catawba (1-4) still had a reasonable chance at victory until the Georgians pieced together a seven-minute drive that devoured the clock and culminated with a clinching 2-yard run by Tracey Scott — the last 2 of his 190 rushing yards — with just 2:14 remaining. Next came a 2-point conversion to stretch the final margin to 14.

When Caleb Berry punted for Catawba with 9:15 left to play and the Indians trailing 27-21, both teams had been stagnant on offense. There was no reason to suspect that Albany State could relentlessly move 67 yards in 11 plays, but the visitors clicked and executed at the worst possible time for Catawba. That decisive drive was all on the ground. There were two third-down conversions.

“Defensively, we were a little confused early in the game, but by the second quarter we’d started figuring out adjustments, and by the third quarter, we were getting a lot of stops,” Catawba senior defensive lineman Ryan Watts said. “But guys were falling out and going down and they had that one long drive at the end. We fought hard, but we couldn’t stop them.”

Injuries are a major concern going forward. Starting quarterback Reid Carlton, banged up the last two weeks, was out and was replaced by redshirt freshman Ken Avent III. Avent was exceptional in the first half (10-for-12 for 178 yards), but the Golden Rams brought more pressure in the second half. Avent threw for just 51 yards after the break, and Catawba’s offense withered along with his passing numbers.

Catawba lost tight end Jourdan Osinskie and running back Demonte Good, as well as linebacker L.J. Melvin, the leader of the defense. That was just the biggest names. Seven or eight Indians limped off.

“We’re not talking cramps, we’re talking injuries,” Walker said. “We’re talking ankles, shoulders, knees. Some guys were not able to return.”

Good had 20 yards on two carries when he had to be helped off. Osinskie suffered an ankle injury making a 23-yard reception, although he vowed to return to action soon.

“You definitely don’t expect injuries like we had today, and it’s something no one ever wants to see,” senior defensive lineman Jordan Hemingway said. “So much adversity for us today, but all we can do is continue to fight through it.”

It was an unusual game, with the offenses putting up monster first-half numbers, and the defenses taking over following halftime adjustments.

Albany State is a triple-option, run-first team — 53 carries for 385 yards behind a mammoth offensive line — but the visitors  beat the Indians with a pass play and scored first. The PAT failed.

Catawba came right back, moving 72 yards on 1o plays, with Avent standing  firmly against blitzes and making accurate passes. Kenyatta Greene got the TD from the 1.  Lee Brackman’s PAT gave the Indians a 7-6 lead.

Scott ripped off a 75-yard jaunt just 12 seconds after Catawba scored, and the Indians trailed, 13-7.

A leaping interception by safety Mike Miller at the Catawba 5 on the last play of the first quarter came at a perfect time, just when it appeared Albany State, which had stopped Greene on a fourth-and-1 to get the ball back, was going to grab a two-TD lead.

Miller’s pick was a momentum-changer. Avent directed another scoring drive. His 36-yard scoring toss to Devonte Tanksley and Brackman’s conversion gave the Indians a 14-13 lead with 11:15 left in the first half.

That was high tide for Catawba.

Avent lost a fumble at the Catawba 15, and Albany State cashed in to go on top, 20-14, with 6:36 to play in the half.

Then Albany State QB Kelias Williams threw his second TD pass for a 27-14 lead with 3:20 left in the half.

Catawba scored 1:43 before halftime when Avent found Greene, and the speedster whirled for a 13-yard score. The Indians were down at the break, 27-21, still in pretty good shape.

“Our offensive production in the first half was very good, but we didn’t stop them,” Walker said. “The second half, we tightened things up defensively, but we didn’t have the offense.”

That’s how things go when you’re in a slump. Ten guys execute, but the 11th doesn’t, and that wrecks everything.

“Defensively, we gave up those first-half touchdowns because of one guy,” Walker said. “One guy missed an assignment, or one guy missed a tackle, or one guy took a bad angle.”

In the third quarter, Albany State  faced third-and-goal at the Catawba 12 after a holding penalty and Hemingway broke through for a strip-sack. Cameron Davis made the recovery and would’ve had a lengthy  fumble-return touchdown, but the play was blown dead. It still appeared that take-charge effort by Hemingway might  lead to a Catawba victory, but the Indians could only move the chains once before they had to punt.

Catawba’s defense got another stop at the end of the third quarter and another at the start of the fourth quarter.

But then Albany State had that long, crunching, seven-minute march, running the ball time after time on its way to 500 offensive yards. The clock kept churning. The Indians were doomed.

“We missed a lot of tackles,” Hemingway said. “It’s something we’ve got to keep working on.”

Next for Catawaba is a South Atlantic Conference trip to Wingate. After that, will be the homecoming game with Tusculum.

“I hate losing, and this has been a tough couple of weeks with this being my last year of football,” Watts said. “But my mom’s advice for my senior year was to have fun, and I’m going to. We’ve got to keep working and we’ve got to enjoy the time we have left as brothers.”

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