College football: Indians open with victory

Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 5, 2021

By Mike London

SALISBURY — For the first time in 35 months, Catawba won a home football game, and the excitement at Kirkland Field at Shuford Stadium was thick enough to slice with a knife.

Erskine, which played its first football game in 70 years last spring, isn’t exactly Wingate or Lenoir-Rhyne or Carson-Newman, but Catawba hopes Saturday afternoon’s season-opening 37-27 victory is the first step on the road back to respectability.

It should’ve been easier than it was. Catawba should have committed fewer penalties and should have turned it over fewer times, but the bottom line was the Indians made a ton of explosive plays and made them at key times. Catawba made plays in the kicking game, in the running game, in the passing game — and on defense. The Indians haven’t done that in the same game in a very long time.

“We’ve got to clean up the turnovers and the penalties, and those are things we’ll be addressing this week,” elated Catawba head coach Curtis Walker said. “But it’s good to win. Winning is what we’ve been working for since August 6. Winning should be a natural feeling for our guys.”

It hasn’t been. Catawba was 4-7 in 2018 and 1-10 in 2019 when the only victory in came on the road. COVID squeezed the life out of the 2020 season before Catawba went 0-2 last spring.

So 1-0 feels good.

Catawba never got behind in Saturday’s contest, but Erskine never was out of it until Clayton Crile’s 25-yard field goal with 1:15 remaining gave the Indians a secure, two-score lead.

Practically jumping off the stat sheet was Catawba’s 320-75 advantage in net rushing yards. Catawba hadn’t dominated the line of scrimmage like that in recent memory.

“Our offensive line did a great job,” Walker said. “They gave us opportunities to make plays in the running game.”

It’s not a secret that Catawba quarterback Ken Avent III can scoot, and that’s what it will say on every scouting report on the Indians, but he still got loose for 151 yards on 10 carries. Freshman Jyrea Martin debuted with 102 sledgehammer yards on 17 carries. Daniel Parker was steady, picking up 67 yards on 14 carries.

Avent added 125 passing yards and hit both of the exciting athletes who are expected to make big plays in the passing game — Kujuan Pryor and Rasheed Singleton — for touchdowns.

Catawba was a solid 8-for-16 on converting third downs. That was mostly Avent’s legs and arm.

Crile, teaming with long snapper Keaton Chambers and holder Will Sheehan, was 3-for-3 on field goal attempts and 4-for-4 on PATS for a 13-point day.

Erskine played from behind most of the afternoon, so QB Craig Pender filled the air with 32 passes, completing 19 for 334 yards and three TDs. Receiver Senika McKie proved a handful for the Indians, with seven catches for 176 yards and a touchdown.

“McKie is a big outside receiver and we didn’t do a very good job of covering him or tackling him after he caught it,” Walker said. “Their quarterback did a good job of throwing to his back shoulder. Hopefully, we won’t see any more like him this season.”

Catawba got an interception from former East Rowan linebacker Christian Bennett and fumble recoveries from Bennett and cornerback Izaiah Taylor. Lineman Joe Camara and John Oxce piled up tackles for loss. Veteran linebacker Jeremiah Ferguson had a sack for a 14-yard loss.

The game got off to a wild start. Erskine broke a 24-yard run on the first play from scrimmage only to have Catawba DB Dorrien Bagley force a fumble. Taylor scooped it and ran for an apparent touchdown, but part of his return was nullified by an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.

Catawba still got the ball in Erskine territory, and Avent kept the ball on an option play for a 27-yard touchdown.

Crile kicked a 31-yard field goal later in the first quarter for a 10-0 Catawba lead.

Erskine got back in the game when it climbed out of a hole with the aid of two 15-yard Catawba penalties on the same play. There was a late hit out of bounds, plus another flag for unsportsmanlike conduct. The Flying Fleet turned those gifts into a drive for a field goal, and it was 10-3.

Avent’s 30-yard TD pass to a leaping Singleton in the end zone expanded the Indians’ lead to 17-3 with 8:30 left in the second quarter, but Catawba turned the ball over on its next two possessions, allowing Erskine to scrap back to 17-10 at halftime.

By halftime, Catawba had eight penalties for 116 yards. That helped Erskine, which had been penalized only once, stay within striking distance.

“Six personal fouls in the first half,” Walker said. “Some of those were on blocks trying to help teammates, but we’ve got to be more disciplined.”

Catawba continued a grinding running game behind left tackle Jagger Jones and left guard Zyricq Rufus in the third quarter, and a short TD burst by Martin made it 24-10. Martin carried on five straight plays to finish that successful drive with 5:38 left in the third quarter.

The Indians appeared to have things well in hand at that point, but Pender was a long way from done. After his two touchdown passes in less than three minutes, it was 24-all late in the third quarter, and Catawba suddenly was in a streetfight.

That was the most challenging juncture in the game for the Indians.

But Catawba got good field position on Erskine’s pooched kickoff and picked up a first down on a penalty before Avent hit Pryor for enough yardage to put Crile in range. Crile’s 43-yard field goal gave the Indians a 27-24 lead with 14 minutes left and put Catawba ahead to stay.

Catawba’s defense came through with a critical stop, but the Indians were pinned back at their 5-yard line after a fine punt by Erskine.

On third-and-2 from the Catawba 13, Avent ran for a first down. On third-and-3 from from the Catawba, Avent got loose for a 53-yard run to the Erskine 25. That led to Avent’s 9-yard TD pass to Pryor and a 34-24 lead with 7:30 left to play.

Pender’s 65-yard connection to McKie moved Erskine down the field in a hurry. The Flying Fleet reached the Catawba 1 before surprisingly settling for the fourth-down field goal that cut the Indians’ lead to 34-27 with under five minutes left.

Erskine still had time for one last charge at that point, but Avent broke another long jaunt, this one for 54 yards, to set up Crile’s clinching field goal.

This was the first of seven Catawba home games. Winston-Salem State is scheduled to visit the Indians next week for the only night game on the home schedule. Kickoff is at 7 p.m.