College football: Catawba wins opener

Published 3:29 am Sunday, September 3, 2023



Deno Wardlow


By Mike London

ELIZABETH CITY — The grim reality is that Catawba’s football squad had to hang on for dear life to beat an Elizabeth City State team that went 2-8 in 2022 and lost 54-8 to Chowan the last time it took the field.

But no one was thinking any negative thoughts. No one was feeling anything other than thrilled.

No one can say that the first game of what is being hyped as the Tyler Haines Era wasn’t exciting.

“Sloppy,” the new Catawba head coach said. “But something to build on.”

Catawba survived 31-23, far from home, at ECSU’s Roebuck Stadium, and winning is much better than losing. There is no such thing as a bad road win. Catawba is 1-0 and Haines is 1-0.

Winning was a challenge for the Indians, but they put up eye-popping stats as they meandered toward the finish line.

The most critical stat was Deno Wardlow’s three interceptions. The third one came in the end zone, and it came in the fourth quarter.

It was a play that may have saved the day for the Indians. Catawba hadn’t had a three-interception game since Mark McDaniel, the former South Rowan star, picked off three passes against Limestone in 2015.

People were wondering who would run the ball for the Indians. Lee Bracey Jr. showed that he can be that guy. He totaled 194 yards on 27 carries on a workhorse afternoon.

Quarterback Preston Brown acquitted himself well in his first start for Catawba. The preseason injury that aborted Brown’s 2022 season may have been the single biggest reason things fell apart for Catawba so completely last fall.

Brown was 15-for-29 passing for 203 yards and three touchdowns. The key stat for him on opening day was no interceptions. Interceptions were deadly poison for Catawba in 2022.

Catawba didn’t start out in scintillating fashion and trailed 7-0 after the first quarter. Chase Williams threw a 43-yard touchdown pass to put the Vikings on the board first.

Things started to swing Catawba’s way in the second quarter. An interception by Wardlow opened the period, and Catawba got even at 7-all on a 28-yard pass from Brown to Bo Pryor, who was known earlier in his career as Kujuan Pryor. It’s the same guy. He’s still fast.

The Vikings answered. Catawba answered the Vikings’ answer with a one-play drive for 14-14. Brown threw a pass to Jordan Mitchell, who made one eager tackler miss and was off to the races for 72 yards.

An interception by Dorrien Bagley led to Catawba’s third scoring drive of the second quarter and a 21-14 lead at the half. Bracey got the TD from the 1.

Catawba kept the momentum going and controlled the third quarter.

Bryson Sims kicked a 45-yard field goal for a 24-14 lead.

It was 31-14 after the Indians put together a 13-play scoring drive. That drive included the decision to go for six instead of field goal when Catawba faced fourth-and-goal from the 3. It worked out when Brown threw a TD pass to tight end Kobe Christian. That play turned out to be important when the Vikings launched a comeback.

Catawba had scored 24 unanswered points as the fourth quarter began, but the Vikings kicked a long field goal for 31-17.

When the Indians muffed a punt, ECSU alertly recovered and scored on the next snap with a 20-yard run by Darian King. A try for two points failed, but the Vikings had fought back within 31-23 with under four minutes left.

Then Catawba lost a fumble, handing the Vikings a golden opportunity to tie the game with a touchdown plus a two, but that’s when Wardlow came through with his third interception.

“Guys started to press to finish the game,” Haines said. “That’s characteristic of a team not used to pressure. There were some learning moments.”

Catawba was able to run a little clock after ECSU’s kickoff, but not nearly enough, and had to punt. The Vikings took possession with 2:20 left to play and had 68 yards to travel.

Stranger things have happened, but Catawba didn’t fold and got the stop it needed. John-Robert Boyd’s fourth-down sack sealed victory.

Key stats for Catawba’s defense were just 81 passing yards allowed and a dismal 1-of-11 on converting third downs for the Vikings, plus a couple of fourth-down failures to move the chains.

Catawba will host Livingstone (0-1) at 6 p.m. next Saturday. Livingstone allowed five passing TDs and fell 41-7 at home to Bluefield State on Saturday.