By Jimmy Cassidy
Just three and a half minutes were left on the clock in the last quarter of Catholic’s season-opening football game on Saturday, September 3rd. The scoreboard displayed a healthy lead for the visitors, the McDaniel Green Terror, at 21-6. Catholic was about to begin their 2016 campaign at 0-1 until an improbable comeback turned the game around. A blocked punt that inspired an offensive outbreak led the Cardinals to a 28-21 overtime win over McDaniel. The victory gives new head coach Bill Bachman his first career win in his debut.
It was also a debut for new starting quarterback Jorge Pola, who got his first shot under center for Catholic. It had been a long time coming for the junior from Miami, Florida — Pola had thrown just two passes in his two previous years on the team. On this day, he went 23-43 on passing with 246 yards along with a pair of touchdowns and interceptions each. Pola did damage on the ground as well, running for 70 yards on 15 carries.
“It was basically so many different feelings of appreciation for the moment and accomplishment because how much patience it took to finally be able to run the show,” Pola said after the game.
No nerves seemed to show from Pola and the Cardinals’ offense on the opening drive of the game. The offense began their drive at their own 43 yard line and marched downfield to score in eight plays. Pola rushed for two first downs and completed two passes, including a first down catch by fellow junior wide receiver Blake Gomez. On a third down in the redzone, Pola broke free for a 19 yard touchdown run. In front of a large opening day crowd at Cardinal Stadium, the home team went up 6-0 following a missed extra point attempt.
The rest of the half was not as kind to the offensive unit, and McDaniel capitalized to take back the lead. Not one of Catholic’s six next drives lasted more than three plays, and they all resulted in either a punt or an interception for the Green Terror. The Cardinals were held to just 79 total yards of offense in the first two quarters. Junior left tackle Brook Davenport was asked about what he saw on the offensive line.
“After the first drive McDaniel switched to an odd defensive front and brought more blitzing in the interior gaps. This caused for some initial problems with our run schemes,” Davenport said.
With the offense struggling, CUA’s defense was tasked with holding back McDaniel from gaining the lead. The Green Terror found some success, thanks to much more time of possession, and took a 14-6 lead heading into halftime.
The struggles continued for Catholic in the second half, and it looked as if McDaniel’s defense would be the deciding factor in the game. Whether in the air or on the ground, the Green Terror defense was a force that the Cardinals did not have an answer for. Catholic’s next several drives included 3 turnovers on downs, one lost fumble, one punt, and one interception.
The one interception was returned 30 yards for a touchdown to put the visiting team up 21-6 halfway through the fourth quarter. The Cardinals needed to catch a break to swing the momentum. The big play came from the special teams with 3:30 left to play. Catholic’s defense forced McDaniel’s punt team to come out for one of their nine punts on the day. Senior cornerback Justin Paige broke through the line and blocked the punt deep in McDaniel’s territory, and sophomore Jake Marcelino fell on the ball in the end zone for the touchdown. CUA was now down 21-13 with a few minutes left to play.
It was again up to the resilient Cardinal defense to get an important stop and give their offense a chance to score once again before the end of regulation. The men delivered with another three and out, and forced the punt team out once again. Coach Bachman used a couple timeouts to manage the dwindling clock, and CUA got the ball back with 2:18 to play on their own 24 yard line.
It was a big time moment for the new starter Pola; the two-minute drill, down by 8, after more than a dozen unsuccessful drives. The first three plays — rush for a loss of one, incomplete, and incomplete. That brought up 4th and 11 from the 23 yard line, and Pola found senior wideout Joe Taylor III for an 11 yard gain, good enough for a first down. There was hope, and Pola got in a groove.
“Once it was time for that last two minute drill, all I could think about was how this is exactly what I signed up for,” Pola said.
The next two plays were completions for 28 and 21 yards; Catholic was in business. Then at the McDaniel 17 yard line with 1:05 left, the quarterback found senior wide receiver Lucas Morley for a touchdown. Morley, the leader in all of Division III football last year in catches per game (10.0), came up big once again for the Cards. The 6’3 wideout who caught 14 touchdowns on 967 yards in a breakout 2015 season had been kept in check until this point of the ballgame. For the crucial two-point conversion to tie the game at 21, Pola went right back to Morley on a one-on-one fade route that he came down with. The time in regulation ended with a 21-21 tie and all the momentum in Catholic’s favor.
Davenport commented on the offensive outbreak in the last minutes of the game.
“Later in the 4th I think our offensive tempo really ran down the defense. We went with a much quicker pace at the line of scrimmage which had a huge impact on their defense,” he said.
Catholic got the ball first in overtime, and a three-yard pitch and catch between Pola and Morley gave the team the touchdown to put them up for good at 28-21. The defense did not let McDaniel answer, and the overtime period ended to give CUA the opening day win.
“Having Lucas out there definitely helps with my confidence and comfort,” Pola said about Morley. “I’ve been working with him since my freshman year so there’s been an element of trust developed between us that not only makes him a weapon for me but also an outlet when in doubt.”
Coach Bachman credited Morley and the defensive effort on his debut victory after the game. Defensive backs Justin
Paige and Mark Dimatteo kept the Green Terror receiving core in check all afternoon, and seniors Ross Sanford and Dave Zarkoski led the team in tackles.
The Cardinals begin a three-game road trip against Rochester on September 10th at 1 PM. They will be back in action at Cardinal Stadium on Saturday, October 8th at 1 PM against Washington & Lee College.