Western Maryland went into halftime yesterday in a position it hadn't been in since November 1996 -- it was losing.
The Green Terror rallied, however, scoring two third-quarter touchdowns for a 20-16 win over Catholic in the first round of the NCAA Division III playoffs at Bair Stadium.
Western Maryland (11-0) advances to a rematch with the South Region's top seed, Trinity University (10-0), Saturday in San Antonio.
The Green Terror ran its home winning streak to 20 games and earned its first playoff victory after defeats in 1997 and 1998. Last season ended with a 30-20 playoff loss at Trinity.
"I never thought there was a monkey on my back," Western Maryland coach Tim Keating said. "The largest reward is that we get to play again."
The extension of the season came courtesy of Green Terror quarterback Ron Sermarini and the team's defense. Both were subpar in the first half and dominated in the second half.
Sermarini passed for one touchdown, and his 48-yard scoring run with 3: 14 left in the third quarter was the game-winner. The Western Maryland defense, which is second in the nation in fewest points allowed (7.7), gave up twice as many points to the Cardinals (9-2) in one quarter before shutting them down.
Catholic's offense came into the game ranked No. 7 nationally in scoring (40.1 points a game) and total offense (481.5 yards a game).
The Cardinals affirmed that status by marching into Western Maryland territory on five of their first six possessions, scoring on a 19-yard pass from Derek McGee to Mike Hunter, and an 8-yard pass from McGee to running back Andrew Notafrancesco that gave them a 13-3 lead with 7: 50 left in the second quarter.
Western Maryland cornerback Rob McCracken hit Notafrancesco just as the pass arrived from McGee, and not only did the running back hold onto the ball after bobbling it, but he also broke McCracken's tackle and ran into the end zone.
Notafrancesco was a problem for the Green Terror; he had 114 yards on 19 carries in the first half, including a 49-yard run on third-and-25 that led to Greg Stokes' 27-yard field goal four seconds before halftime sent the Green Terror to the locker room with a 16-3 deficit.
"We went in saying, 'Sixteen points is enough,' " Western Maryland linebacker Tommy Salecky said.
Tongue in cheek, Western Maryland defensive coordinator Al Thomas explained what made the difference.
"We made a great coaching adjustment at halftime," he said. "I looked at guys and said, 'We're going to tackle in the second half.' I tell you, I am a defensive genius."
Although McGee was somewhat effective in the first half, it was the Catholic running game that did the most damage. That stopped in the second half, as the Green Terror allowed only 35 yards on 17 carries and harassed McGee into 4-for-12 passing and an interception.
"We thought that if we went after them, we would have a shot at beating them," said Notafrancesco, who finished with 156 yards on 33 carries. "They just came out and made adjustments."
The offense experienced a similar turnabout. The longest Western Maryland drive in the first half was all of two minutes, resulting in a 31-yard field goal by Brent Sandrock that was the game's first score.
Fourteen of the Green Terror's 20 first-half plays were passes, and with Sermarini completing only four, the team had the ball for just seven minutes, gaining 62 yards.
In the second half, 70 percent of the plays were runs, and the team gained 120 rushing yards, including 79 from Sermarini, who also completed 11 of his 17 second-half passes for 128 yards.
"In the second half, we had to run the ball more," Sermarini said. "With our offensive line, it turned out very well."
All six plays on Western Maryland's first scoring drive were pass plays, the last a 6-yard pass from Sermarini to Teron Powell, cutting Catholic's lead to 16-10 with 10: 28 left in the third quarter.
But once Sermarini's 48-yard touchdown run gave the Green Terror a 17-16 lead, the offense began running the ball more effectively.
Five rushes and a 39-yard catch by Powell (five catches, 102 yards) set up another field goal by Sandrock, this one from 38 yards with 11: 51 left in the game.
Next for W. Md.
What: Division III second-round playoff game
Opponent: Trinity University
Site: E. M. Stevens Stadium, San Antonio
When: Saturday, 1 p.m.
Yesterday: Had bye