It wasn’t a good football weekend for the three schools where I received my college education.
The misery started early, as Oklahoma State edged the Texas A&M Aggies 38-35 on Thursday night on a field goal on the last play of the game. Then yesterday Miami gave Clemson some payback for a tough 40-37 overtime loss last season in Coral Gables, Fla., pulling away from the Tigers in the second half for a 30-21 victory at Death Valley.
And I understand that Alabama played the Florida Gators in Tuscaloosa last night. Click here for the result, as the less said about it here, the better.
The school where I teach, NCAA Division II member Wingate University also had a losing football Saturday. The Bulldogs fell 35-28 to a South Atlantic Conference rival, Catawba College of Salisbury, N.C. I covered this game for The Charlotte Observer in addition to doing a live blog for the wingatebulldogs.com website.
There’s nothing like the atmosphere of a big-time college football game in Clemson, or Gainesville, Fla., or College Station, Texas, where the game, with its attendant traditions, is the centerpiece of an all-day social event. (And readers can fill in their favorite Division I venue if you don’t like these.)
But I’ve also always been charmed by the much lower-key atmosphere of a small college game, especially as a reporter. While the players and coaches want to win as much as anyone at Michigan or UCLA, the atmosphere is much less pressurized and the particpants actually seem to be having fun. It makes the journalist’s job more fun, too.
That’s the feeling I came away with after Saturday afternoon’s game in front of a crowd of 3,024 fans at Irwin Belk Stadium on the Wingate campus. They got their money’s worth in a high-scoring game between two rival schools with lots of action and — something you don’t see in some of these Division I games — even a little bit of spontaneity.
Even though it went against “my” team — I feel like I do a good job of compartmentalizing these things even when I have a tie to one of the teams playing — I enjoyed the play which closed the first half.
Catawba, leading 21-7, brought in backup quarterback Daniel Griffith to replace starter Pat Dennis for the last play with about 5 seconds on the clock. He heaved the ball into a crowd of players in the end zone. Someone got a hand on it and tipped it to senior wide receiver Brandon Bunn, waiting in the back of the end zone. Touchdown, Catawba.
“Just like we practiced it,” said a grinning Bunn (I had fun with the story seeing how many words I could rhyme with that) after the game. He wasn’t kidding. The Indians run the schoolyard-style play, which they call “Geronimo,” every practice.
“Daniel can throw the ball a country mile — they said he threw that ball off his back foot, which tells you something,” Bunn said. “My job is just to go to the back (of the end zone) and wait and see what happens.”
The catch was just one highlight in a remarkable day for the boyish-looking senior from Virginia Beach, Va. Starting with a 74-yard touchdown catch on a strike from Dennis on the game’s first play, he went on to catch 10 passes for 247 yards and four touchdowns, the last two both school records. He came up 28 yards short of the SAC single-game record for receiving yards.
To their credit, Wingate didn’t give up after the awful first half and came back to make a game of it late. Timmy Rogers, a freshman from Sumter, S.C., played a part in two of the Bulldogs’ three second half touchdowns. In the third quarter, he picked a blocked punt out of midair and ran it back 18 yards for a touchdown. And he set up Wingate’s last score by blocking a punt in the fourth quarter.
“We haven’t had a punt block in quite a while and that’s something we can take away from this that was a positive,” said Wingate coach Joe Reich. (His older brother, Frank, was the NFL Carolina Panthers’ original starting quarterback in 1995).
“It wasn’t a scheme thing as much as some great individual efforts.”
For the small-college guys, they’re efforts that don’t get noticed as much as the ones that get televised on ESPN from the big Colloseums. But it’s still football, and it’s fun.