SALISBURY, N.C. A second-half rally came up just short here Saturday afternoon as host Catawba held off West Liberty to escape Shuford Stadium with a 10-9 win in a mutual season opener.
Trailing 10-3 at halftime, the Hilltoppers closed the gap with a pair of Bryan Arbes field goals after intermission but couldn't come up with the go-ahead score.
"We just have to finish drives," said disappointed head coach Roger Waialae. "I thought the offense moved the ball at times and the defense played pretty well. We have a good football team but the bottom line is this was a one-play game and we didn't have anybody step up to make it."
WEST LIBERTY wide receiver Dylan Potts runs after making one of his seven catches during Saturday’s game at Catawba. The Hilltoppers dropped a 10-9 verdict.
West Liberty drew first blood midway through the opening quarter when a booming 67-yard punt by Griffin Yocum pinned the Indians deep in their own territory.
The Hilltopper defense forced a 3-and-out and a short Catawba punt gave West Liberty the ball at the Indians' 34.
The visitors picked up a first down but the drive stalled at the 18, setting up the first of Arbes' three field goals this one from 36 yards out.
Catawba QB Danny O'Brien, a Wisconsin transfer who had earned ACC Rookie of the Year honors at Maryland in 2010, had a hot hand in the first half.
Completing 15-of-18 passes for 130 yards in the opening 30 minutes, O'Brien led the hosts on a pair of second-quarter scoring drives to take a 10-3 lead into the locker room.
The first one, which covered 90 yards in 13 plays, actually began late in the opening period before wrapping up with a 10-yard scoring strike to Nate Charest at 13:46 of the second quarter. O'Brien was a perfect 7-for-7 through the air during the march.
O'Brien drove Catawba into West Liberty territory on the Indians' next possession but the Hilltopper defense stiffened, bringing on kicker Chad Hollandsworth for a 47-field goal that barely squeezed over the crossbar with 6:26 on the second quarter clock.
West Liberty mounted its best drive of the half on the final possession of the second quarter but ran out of downs at the Catawba 24 with just nine seconds left in the half.
After the teams traded missed field goals at the start of the third quarter, the WLU defense took control of the game.
O'Brien had just 38 passing yards the rest of the way and the Hilltopper defense forced five 3-and-outs on the Indians' next six possessions.
West Liberty had a chance to knot the score at 10-10 midway through the third quarter when the Hilltoppers' longest drive of the day gave them a first-and-goal at the Catawba 6.
A pair of running plays wrapped around an end zone incompletion nearly a circus touchdown catch by Roosevelt Morisset forced WLU to settle for a 25-yard Arbes field goal, cutting the deficit to 10-6 at 4:35 of the third quarter.
Another golden opportunity slipped away in the fourth quarter. On third-and-4 from the Catawba 16, quarterback Dylan Lagarde flipped a short pass in the flat to tailback Dominic Cooper. A quick juke got Cooper past the lone defender, leaving a wide-open path to the end zone, but he caught a cleat as he turned upfield and fell to the turf at the 7.
Three snaps produced just one yard and Arbes came on for a 24-yard chip shot with 7:18 to play.
West Liberty got the ball back once more but had to punt it away with just over two minutes remaining and Catawba was able to run out the clock.
Lagarde completed 20-of-43 passes for 172 yards with Dylan Potts' seven catches for 60 yards leading the WLU receiving corps. Cooper was the game's leading rusher with 15 carries for 74 yards.
O'Brien finished his completing 19-of-34 passes for 189 yards. Charest was the game's leading receiver with 9 catches for 111 yards.
The Hilltoppers return home to open Mountain East Conference play against Glenville State on Saturday. Kickoff is set for 1 p.m. at Russek Field.