VALDOSTA -- Catawba College came close to leaving Matt Gross at home. Problem is, close only counts in horseshoes -- among other things.
The senior, who overslept as the team left North Carolina on Thursday, caught up with the team down the road. Good thing, since his presence paid off for Catawba Saturday at Bazemore-Hyder Stadium.
Gross kicked the game-tying extra point with eight seconds left, then kicked the game-winning 35-yard field goal in overtime to give No. 7 Catawba a 37-34 overtime victory over No. 1 Valdosta State in the NCAA Division II football quarterfinals.
Catawba (11-1) advances to the national semifinals next Saturday vs. Grand Valley State, a 33-30 winner over Saginaw Valley State.
VSU's history-making season ends at 12-1. It was the third time the Blazers had made the second round of the national playoffs only to lose.
"This is a very tough loss. We thought we had the best team in the country," said Valdosta State head coach Chris Hatcher. "Our goal was to play in Florence, Ala."
"We beat a heck of a football team," added Catawba head coach David Bennett. "Valdosta's got some of the best athletes we've seen in our career at Catawba.
"I'm proud of our young men for finding a way to win the football game."
The Indians overcame a 26-14 deficit early in the third quarter, then answered VSU's go-ahead touchdown with 3:40 left with a 10-play, 51-yard drive which ended on Tony Hawkins' 4-yard run with eight seconds left.
After the Blazers couldn't get a first down on four plays in its overtime possession, Catawba ran three plays and gave Gross, a first-team all-South Atlantic Conference pick, a chance to win it.
Gross didn't miss this chance.
"I knew if we could stop them in overtime it would probably come down to me," said Gross, who's made 15 field goals this season. "I just wanted to get under the ball and drive through it so they wouldn't have a chance to block it.
"I knew it was good when I kicked it. I was probably more nervous on the extra point than the field goal."
For another week, Valdosta State had its problems with the football. The Blazers lost two fumbles and senior quarterback Dusty Bonner (33-of-51, 326 yards) threw three interceptions. The Blazers also had two Reid Bethea field goals blocked.
"You have to play mistake-free to beat Catawba," Hatcher said. "If we go and punch a couple of those in, we win the football game. We just didn't make the play."
The blocks, both up the middle by Darris Morris, proved costly. Bennett said if the Blazers -- who had scored 24 unanswered points after going down 14-2 -- had extended the lead past 26-14, the result would have been different.
"We fell right in the hands of Catawba football," said Hatcher. "They keep hanging around and hanging around and find a way to win a game."
After the first block, the teams traded punts. On VSU's drive, a 22-yard Bonner to Michael Greer pass was called back because of holding. Valdosta State punted two plays later to midfield.
Catawba, which hadn't had a first down since just before halftime, put together a seven-play, 49-yard drive. The second third-down conversion was Luke Samples' 4-yard pass to Mark Sintich for a touchdown. Gross' kick made it 26-21 Blazers with 28 seconds left in the third quarter.
After the teams traded turnovers, including Derek Braxton's interception in the end zone, VSU put together a 13-play, 58-yard drive. But on fourth-and-2 at the Catawba 17, the Blazers were called for a delay of game before Bonner could call time out.
Five yards back, Bethea tried a 38-yard field goal. Again, Morris got the block. This time, Eddie Wall returned the ball to near midfield.
On third-and-3, Rodney Wallace (94 yards on 23 carries) got past the Blazer defense for a 46-yard touchdown run. The Indians' two-point pass failed, but they had a 27-26 lead with 6:15 left.
Valdosta State wasn't done. Reggie Mosley started the drive with a 31-yard return to the VSU 41. The Blazers never had a third-down play, with Aaron Jenkins (144 yards rushing, 198 total yards) giving the Blazers first-and-goal at th
e 8 on an 18-yard run.
Two plays later, Bonner hit Greer on a crossing pattern. He raced to the front corner of the end zone for his first VSU receiving touchdown. Bonner's two-point pass to Mosley made it 34-27 Blazers with 3:40 left.
Too much time? Just enough for the Indians.
Nick Means returned the kickoff 19 yards to the Catawba 34, with a late hit foul moving the ball near midfield.
On the next play, Samples threw 26 yards to Means to the VSU 25. Samples also completed two third-down passes, the last a 12-yarder to O.J. Lennon at the 2.
After Wallace was stopped twice for 1-yard losses as the clock continued to run down, Catawba chose to go wide left. Hawkins outran the defense for the 4-yard score with eight seconds left.
In overtime, Bonner completed one short pass to Carlos Johnson. Bonner's second-down pass was almost interception, and two defenders dropped him for a 13-yard loss on third down. His fourth-down pass to Mosley was short of the mark.
Four plays later, Gross gave Catawba its first quarterfinal win in three tries -- and ended VSU's hopes for its first national football title.
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