December 2, 2001
Grand illusion: Catawba's football season comes to an endBy Mike London, The Salisbury Post
ALLENDALE, Mich. —The disappointment that hammered Catawba’s football team Saturday afternoon was every bit as harsh as the 21 mph winds that buffeted the American flag waving high above Lubbers Stadium.
A special and spectacular season ended for the Indians (11-2) with a 34-16 semifinal loss at Grand Valley State, which advances to next Saturday’s nationally televised Division II championship game.
All year long the Indians, South Regional champs, found ways to win. They’d gotten friendly bounces when they were needed and they’d made big plays. This time they simply didn’t have their standard magic.
The glory from the 2001 season will linger long, but the beaten Indians will still beat themselves up over their loss to the Lakers for a couple of months.
“It was cold and that was a big change for us, but that’s no excuse,” said Catawba freshman quarterback Luke Samples. “To win, we’ve just got to play a whole lot better than we did today.”
Grand Valley State (13-0) is good — very good — but was not as talented as the teams (Central Arkansas and Valdosta State) the Indians put away the last two weeks.
“Grand Valley didn’t have the kind of team speed we’d seen the last two weeks,” said Catawba coach David Bennett. “But a sloppy ol’ muddy field definitely didn’t hurt them, because they’ve got the brute force.”
“Coach Bennett told me we had the best over-achieving football team he’d seen,” said Grand Valley coach Brian Kelly. “No, we’re not especially talented. But we also don’t have any quit in us.
“We had just three goals against Catawba: run the ball, stop their run, play great special teams. We did all three.”
Bennett had expressed concern Friday about the Lakers’ powerful offensive line. His fears came to fruition. The Lakers banged out 242 yards on 50 running plays.
Grand Valley also won the flip-side of the upfront battle, holding the Indians to only 91 net rushing yards, even though the Tribe ran the ball 33 times and spent a good portion of the afternoon pounding away with 230-pound freshman Rodney Wallace in an attempt to wear the Lakers down.
Neither coach debated that the Indians had the chance to seize the game by the throat early.
Grand Valley started its No. 3 quarterback Ryan Brady, because of a knee injury two weeks ago to All-American Curt Anes (48 TD passes) and because of calf and rib injuries to No. 2 QB Tom Wojciechowski last week.
Well aware that Brady, a wide receiver until he became an emergency QB, doesn’t throw often, Catawba stacked the box and stuffed Grand Valley early on. The Lakers’ first five possessions went practically nowhere.
Catawba managed a 7-0 lead after a Khanis Hubbard fumble recovery led to a Samples-to-Nick Means scoring pass, but that was it.
“We just did not capitalize on the field position that our defense gave us,” said Bennett.
The Tribe possession that hurt the most came after linebackers Darris Morris and Shawn Sanders buried Brady for a loss on the Grand Valley 39 when the Lakers gambled on fourth-and-inches. Catawba advanced the ball to the Grand Valley 20, but Matt Gross’ 37-yard field goal try was wide left and the sputtering Lakers were still down just one score.
Things then started to swing when Wojciechowski entered the game for the first time with 10:33 left in the second quarter.
“I lied to you guys (the media) all week about Wojo ,” said Kelly. “I knew he could play some and we had to get him there to get Catawba’s linebackers off us a little bit.”
Between them, rotating QBs Wojciechowski and Brady completed only seven passes, (15 fewer than Samples), but showing a throwing threat did open up the Lakers’ running game, most notably bite-sized Reggie Spearmon, who would eventually accumulate 121 yards and three TDs.
Scarcely a minute after Wojciechowski’s debut, Terrance Banks slipped loose down the middle of the field and Wojciechowski rifled a scoring pass to him that just eluded linebacker Todd McComb’s flailing arm.
Catawba could still have taken a 7-7 tie to the locker room, but tried to score after it took possession at its 6 with two minutes left in the half. That aggressive style had paid dividends with several late first-half scores earlier this year, but not on this day.
Strong runs by Marcus Bland and Wallace advanced the ball to the 33, but Samples’ short slant pass intended for O.J. Lennon was picked off by Scott Mackey, who had a clear path to the Catawba end zone with 47 seconds left in the half. Grand Valley led 13-7.
“A real shot in the arm for us,” said Kelly. “Anytime you can go in ahead at the half, you bow your chest out a little bit. You get confidence.”
“We coulda gone in at half 7-7,” said Bennett. “But you can’t change what you’ve been doing all year. We just made a mistake — threw the ball to the wrong side of the field. But I still thought at halftime, we had a real good chance.”
That seemed especially true after the Indians scored first in the second half when Gross booted a 25-yarder to close the gap to 13-10. That kick was set up by Lennon, who took a short pass from Samples, evaded a tackle and turned not-much into a 48-yard gain. Catawba got as far as the Laker 6 on that drive, but Samples’ screen pass to Means on third-and-5 fell incomplete and forced the Indians to settle for three.
Then Grand Valley answered with an impressive 77-yard drive, primarily on runs by Brady, who raced for 120 yards.
“They just had a great offensive scheme,” praised Bennett. “They kept changing up their blocks, trapping people. We’d fix one thing and then they’d change to something else.”
The critical play on that march came on third-and-5 at the Catawba 21. That’s when Wojciechowski came in and dumped a screen pass to star receiver David Kircus for a first down at the Indian 5. Spearmon scooted for the TD on the first play of the fourth quarter and Catawba trailed 20-10.
Bennett was faced with a tough call four minutes later, but elected to punt on fourth-and-4 at the Grand Valley 40.
This decision worked out, as Indian safety Jemonte Battle recovered a fumbled pitch two plays later. Catawba then scored when Wallace banged in over left guard with 6:36 remaining. That made it 20-16. It stayed that way when Kircus hurdled a teammate and blocked Gross’ PAT. That left Catawba needing a touchdown, not just a field goal to tie.
“But I still felt OK,” said Bennett. “Still thought we could come down and get one touchdown.”
Unfortunately for Indian fans, Catawba soon needed two scores. Kircus caught a pass at the left sideline, as corner Jamel Jackson slipped, then dashed for a 66-yard gain to the Indian 6. That set up another Spearmon TD. Now it was 27-16 with just 5:19 remaining.
“That long pass play to Kircus, that sort of stuck the dagger in,” said Bennett. “Biggest play of the game.”
Another big one followed, snuffing out Catawba’s flickering hopes.
Samples spotted Means down the right sideline and delivered a strong throw in the midst of three Laker defenders. Means was grabbed and held, but didn’t get a flag — or the catch. Instead, the ball deflected off his hand and into the waiting arms of corner James Barnes. And now Catawba was as doomed as a plump turkey a few days before Thanksgiving.
Grand Valley tacked on a meaningless score in the closing minute for the deceivingly lopsided final.
“You hate to see it come to an end, because we wanted a national championship” said Bennett. “But I can’t say anything at all bad about Grand Valley. Give them all the credit in the world.”
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