Football

Look who's talking now Catawba

By Ronnie Gallagher, The Salisbury Post

Tusculum College linebacker Walter Johnson found a tape recorder stuck in his face moments after his team had suffered its first loss of the season, a 21-17 heartbreaker to nationally-sixth-ranked Catawba.

When asked how much it hurt, Johnson said, “I’m speechless.”

It may have been the first time all day.

The Tusculum Talkers, er, Pioneers, had come to Shuford Stadium Saturday ranked 20th in the land and demanding respect.

They definitely went about it the wrong way.

Tusculum’s Talkers did their yapping in pregame warmups and during the game — before the verdict was decided.

Catawba, which already has national respect, hardly said a word until afterward. When they had been declared the winner.

That’s a lesson for the Tusculum Talkers. Loose lips mean nothing when you lose.

“You don’t come on our field and disrespect us,” said cornerback Jamel Jackson, who had a fourth quarter interception that helped stave off the Talkers. “And they disrespected us. Hey, we pulled out the victory and they have a long ride back to Tennessee.”

***

The one player Tusculum did not respect was Jackson, a sophomore from Concord. Time after time, talented quarterback Caleb Slover looked the way of Jackson’s man, Kevin Wolcott. And on practically every one of Wolcott’s nine catches (for 130 yards), Jackson ears were burning.

“Their guys on the sidelines who weren’t playing were trying to get into your head,” Jackson said. “But the strong people mentally fight that off and try to keep their mind on the game.”

It didn’t take long for Jackson to realize that he was a target.

“I was thinking, ‘They’re picking on me. I’m going to pull one loose one of these times.’ ”

With 8 minutes remaining and Catawba up 4, Slover and Wolcott thought they had their man — Jackson.

“We thought we could get them deep,” Wolcott said.

Slover threw the ball about 40 yards in the air but Jackson — keeping his promise — leaped and made the interception. It gave the offense a chance to run off four minutes.

“That was a lovely feeling,” Jackson said, not about to smile. “And you know what? I got all those people back who were talking junk, saying I couldn’t make a play.”

Tusculum’s first wrong move was before the game even began. The Talkers gathered under the goal posts and actually began jumping up and down in unison. They appeared to point at the Catawba players, who were warming up on the other end.

“They were pumping it up,” scoffed Jackson. “Of course, they’re big-mouth talkers. They looked at all of us and started yelling — doing their little chant. That just gave us a little more adrenaline.”

Wolcott let out a sigh.

“We can talk if we back up the words. We tried to back it up today. We just came up a little short.”

Tough-as-nails safety D.J. Starling, Tusculum’s leading tackler and most impressive defensive player, said that his team was intense beforehand but still needed to focus.

“In all honesty, Catawba came out and played like champions,” he said. “They’re right there with Carson-Newman.”

“Catawba’s got the reputation now,” Wolcott admitted. “And that just makes ‘em harder to beat.”

***

Talkers or not, Tusculum may well be the second-best team in the South Atlantic Conference, especially after Presbyterian’s 38-28 win over Carson-Newman. But the players know they missed a golden opportunity Saturday. Now, they’ll probably drop out of the polls and have to practically start over in the respect game, despite owning a glittering 5-1 record.

“(The record) means nothing unless you beat a powerhouse,” Wolcott said.

***

Catawba is a powerhouse, having won 22 straight regular season game.

And Jackson says Tusculum can learn a lesson by taking notes.

Every person on that team has a big mouth,” he said. “And there’s no reason to do it if you don’t win.

“We’re not a big-talking team. In fact, we don’t talk at all. We just keep pulling out victories.”

Jackson wasn’t through assessing the Tusculum Talkers.

“They’re very strong — they’re put together well. But their mouths get them in trouble. When you speak before you play, you fall down. If they sit back and play their game, they might be all right.”

***

Tusculum is more than all right. It’s a bona fide contender.

“The way I see it,” mused Starling, “everybody has to know that Tusculum is a force right now. We have to be reckoned with. There is no more looking over us.”

Coach Frankie DeBusk knows it. And he pleaded with his guys in the postgame huddle to forget about this one and move on. Starling agreed. Because next week, they host Carson-Newman.

“You gotta earn respect by winning,” said Starling. “This is only one loss. Hopefully, we’ll meet up again (in the playoffs) for the split.”

If it happens, maybe Tusculum should remember Oct. 6, where the sixth-ranked team in the nation not only handed them a loss, but a good dose of humility as well.

***

Contact Ronnie Gallagher at 704-797-4256 or rgallagher@salisburypost.com .

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