College football: A home SAC loss, but Indians working to close the gap
Published 8:39 am Monday, September 18, 2023
By Mike London
SALISBURY — Catawba’s 35-21 loss to Mars Hill on Saturday wasn’t great, but it wasn’t awful.
There was the feeling, even as the fourth quarter began, with Catawba two scores down, that Catawba, decked out in red uniforms with a supportive crowd and nice weather, could upset the Lions if the ball bounced right.
It was competitive, even though Mars Hill was clearly sturdier in the trenches. That’s been the case in recent years.
The Lions, who were taking an annual pounding from Catawba not too long ago, have now won five straight in the long-running South Atlantic Conference series. Mars Hill beating Catawba five straight times in football once seemed far less likely than an invasion by aliens. But it’s happened.
So how was new Catawba head coach Tyler Haines’ first SAC game?
“Definitely exciting,” he said. “(Receiver) Bo Pryor played an extraordinary game for us, but it’s a loss, and that’s tough. I’m not used to losing.”
Tim Cifton has been the head coach at Mars Hill since 1993, a year in which George Bush was stepping out of the White House and Bill Clinton was stepping in.
Clifton knows what he’s doing and knows what his guys can do. The Lions always are rough, tough and physical, and when they’ve got a few special skill guys, they can be hard to beat.
Right now, the Lions have special skill guys in back Jon Gullette and receiver Malik Laurent. They also have a guy who may be the SAC’s top defensive player in Tristan Rankin.
Catawba has thrown the ball exceptionally well this season, so well that Preston Brown earned national accolades for his devastating evening against Livingstone’s secondary.
Brown is throwing for almost 300 yards per game. He leads the SAC. Catawba also has the SAC’s two leading receivers in Pryor and Jordan Mitchell, but Mitchell wasn’t a factor in the Mars Hill game. He had two catches for 16 yards.
“They put Rankin on Mitchell, and that made it difficult for us to get the ball to him,” Haines said. “Rankin is very good, an All-American.”
Catawba threw the ball 41 times on Saturday night. That’s a lot. Running plays had a low success rate for the Indians, so Brown really was the only option. Catawba also trailed the majority of the game. Many record-setting passing days come in losses.
Mars Hill, on the other hand, ran the ball 51 times for 245 yards, That’s 204 more rushing yards than Catawba had. Joe Taylor put the ball in the end zone twice, but Gullette was the workhorse. Gullette’s legs churned 29 times for 206 yards.
“That wasn’t unexpected,” Haines said. “That’s what Mars Hill does and they do it very well. They’re really good upfront and we struggled to stop the run. I’m not bashing our guys. They fought as hard as they could all day long. I was proud of how we fought, but Mars Hill was better than us today. We’ve just got to get better on the defensive side of the ball and we’ve got to get better against the run.”
Brown threw two TD passes to Pryor in the first quarter, including a 78-yard play, as the Indians (2-1, 0-1) got off to a strong start.
Catawba led 14-7 at that point, but the Lions (2-0 2-0), who already had beaten Wingate, had two long drives in the second quarter to take a 21-14 halftime lead.
When Mars Hill pounded 90 yards in the third quarter to make it 28-14, things were starting to get desperate for the Indians.
“We needed a spark, needed someone to make an incredible play for us,” Haines said. “I really felt like we just needed that one play to turn momentum back our way. But we didn’t get it against an experienced Mars Hill defense that had 10 seniors out there.”
Instead it was Mars Hill that made the incredible play. The Lions pitched the ball to Laurent for an end around. Catawba was prepared for Laurent as a potential ball carrier, but not for what came next. Laurent stopped short of the line of scrimmage and fired a strike to Simeon Thompson who was cruising behind everyone. It was an easy, 79-yard, back-breaking touchdown early in the fourth quarter. Now it was 35-14, and even with more than 12 minutes left on the scoreboard at Shuford Stadium. Catawba’s first defeat of the season was certain.
The final was 35-20. Catawba scored with 8:36 remaining for the final verdict. It was Brown’s third TD pass of the night. It went to back Marquece Williams.
Brown finished with 324 passing yards. Pryor, tough to handle as a slot receiver, amassed eight catches for 162 yards and those two early scores.
“We are very tough on the edges,” Haines said. “Coach Clifton told me after the game that they were really worried about our skill guys. But what Mars Hill has is physical guys who can just line up and pound you. My message to the team after the game was that against teams like Mars Hill we’ve got to buckle that chin strap a little tighter and we’ve got to bite down on that mouthpiece a little harder. We’ve got to be able to match their intensity.”
Deno Wardlow made 12 tackles for the Indians, but that was good news and bad news. He’s a defensive back.
Catawba has another tough one coming up next Saturday — a road trip to Tusculum.
Tusculum (1-2, 1-0) knocked off Wingate on Saturday, so Catawba will again be a substantial underdog.
The Indians were picked 11th in the SAC in the preseason. According to the Massey Ratings, Catawba will be an underdog in every game left on the schedule, but the Indians are planning to win their share.
And they might.
“We’re working,” Haines said. “Give us a year to recruit and we’ll beat Mars Hill.”
Mars Hill 7 14 7 7 — 35
Catawba 14 0 0 6 — 20
Mars Hill: (51-245) Jon Gullette 29-206-1; Joe Taylor 11-53-2
Catawba (16-41): (LJ Turner 3-24; Marquece Williams 6-20; Malcolm Wilson 3-10
Mars Hill: JR Martin 12-16-0, 137, 1TD; Malik Laurent 1-1-0, 79, 1 TD
Catawba: Preston Brown: 24-41-1, 324, 3 TDs
Mars Hill: Malik Laurent 9-99; Simeon Thompson 3-95-2
Catawba: Bo Pyror 8-162-2; Conner McCarthy 6-75; Aedan Brady 2-28; Marquece Williams 3-25-1; Jordan Mitchell 2-16