SALISBURY, N.C. – The third time is the charm.
For two consecutive years, the Tuskegee University Golden Tigers have been on the verge of making history by winning their first round playoff game, only to fall short by a couple of plays in both games.
After months of preparation through the spring and summer, the Golden Tigers made their dream a reality as they defeated third-seeded Catawba College 26-16 on the road Saturday afternoon.
The win marked the first-ever playoff victory for Tuskegee and propelled the Golden Tigers into the Round of 16 to face a familiar foe in the University of North Alabama next weekend.
“We are excited,” Tuskegee head coach Willie Slater said. “We have been telling them all year this is a great opportunity because we are considered to be one of the top 28 teams in the country. They listened to us, and we are excited to make it past the first round.’
The game time will be announced next week for the game in Florence.
The celebrating started early on the Tuskegee (9-2) sideline when they took the opening drive down the field in just 3:40 on their opening drive. The Golden Tigers took seven plays to go 72 yards, and the drive culminated in a 39-yard touchdown pass to Peyton Ramzy from quarterback Kevin Lacey.
“We were very fortunate to have some big plays,” Slater said. “We felt like if they did some things then we had a chance.”
The touchdown was one of two for Lacey, who finished the day 10-for-18 passing for 219 yards.
The Golden Tigers struck again just nine minutes later when Jerome Lewis punched it in from two yards out with 3:59 to play in the quarter. The drive was highlighted by a 25-yard pass from Lacey to Hawkins to set up the touchdown run.
“We had a great plan,” Lacey said. “When you stick to the game plan it works, you just have to execute. Coach (Slater) is a great coach and makes the right call, and sometimes I get away from that and he lets me know. I know now that you have to execute the plays that are called, and things will happen the right way.”
Catawba was able to get on the board in the third quarter, trimming the lead to a touchdown, but the Golden Tigers came right back down the field using four plays and a 12-yard touchdown pass from Lacey to Leo Gilbert to extend the lead to 20-7.
After Catawba scored again to cut the lead to one possession, Jewell Ratliff made the biggest play of the game.
Ratliff stepped in front of a pass from Catawba quarterback Mike Sheehan, and did what every defender for the Golden Tigers do when they intercept a pass – look for the end zone.
“They were running a play we saw the whole game,” Ratliff said. “I was getting out of position some, and locked my eyes and stayed in position and made the pick.”
The senior linebacker went down the left sideline, before cutting to make an offensive lineman miss, and found the end zone for the third time this season with 7:27 left and the celebration hit a new level.
“I took the run back to my ninth grade,” said a cheerful Ratliff.
Even a Catawba touchdown with six minutes left could not curb the celebration as the team and fans watch the clock in anticipation of hitting zero and marking history for the Tuskegee University football team.
As the clock went under a minute, Slater and defensive coordinator Joseph Carter felt the jubilation of the players as they had water dumped on them and got the celebration really started.
“It felt good because it is our first playoff win,” Carter said. “Our kids have gone through a lot this season, and with that heartbreaking loss two weeks ago, it felt good to watch them have some success.”
Senior Dennis Norfleet finished with 102 yards on 18 carries, leading the rushing attack that gained 171 yards on the day. Hawkins finished with three catches for 67 yards, while Norfleet had a pair of catches (32 yards) and Devozea Gaines had a pair of catches (24 yards).
Defensively, Osband Thompson finished with 13 tackles to lead the Golden Tigers. Ratliff finished with 10, while the team finished with eight tackles for loss and forced two turnovers.
Tuskegee now turns it attention to North Alabama next weekend.
“This was a big win for us,” Slater said. “It is our first playoff win, and now we have to focus on the next win. The next one is the most important one, we just have to get back to work. I have seen some strange things happen in the playoffs.”
Courtesy: Tuskegee Athletics