Review: Samford

The Citadel 13, Samford 12.

Victory!

It wasn’t a dominating performance, to say the least, but a win is a win, especially after losing seven straight games.  Almost all the numbers favored Samford except the ones on the scoreboard that actually count.

That’s why I wouldn’t put this game down as a triumph for The Citadel’s triple option offense.  In truth, Samford’s defense did a good job handling the option attack, much as it had in games against Georgia Southern and Wofford.  The Citadel was held to 119 yards rushing, and just 203 total yards.

Samford outgained The Citadel by more than two to one, had almost twice as many first downs, and did not turn the ball over.  Neither team fared well on third down (The Citadel converted just one of eleven third-down opportunities).

The Citadel won the game thanks to winning the special teams battle (courtesy of a blocked punt by Milford Scott, who you knew was going to get one eventually), and by outstanding red zone defense.  Going into the game, The Citadel’s opponents were scoring touchdowns 71% of the time when in the red zone, but in this game Samford did not get a TD, as The Citadel’s defense held the Birmingham Bulldogs to just three field goals on four trips inside the 20.

Even with the great defense and Scott’s big play, The Citadel still trailed late in the game when Kevin Higgins called for some “trickeration”.  The circle of the season was completed when Luke Caldwell, who served as quarterback for the spring game before moving back to receiver, threw a pass to Rickey Anderson for 55 yards.  Both players deserved that moment.

One play later, Ben Dupree was in the end zone, and after some anxious moments late, the Cadets had their much-needed win.

This was the last game of a trying season, one with very little to cheer about, and that makes it all the more impressive that the team was focused and motivated on Saturday.  Now, I’m on record as stating that the team should always be ready to play — after all, there are only eleven games in a season — but it would be understandable if the concentration level had not been particularly high for an end-of-season road game against a largely faceless opponent, following a bye week, and leading to the Thanksgiving break.

Instead, the defense held on and did not break, despite allowing Samford to march down the field on multiple occasions, and forced the home side to settle for those field goals.  The offense struggled, but did not give the game away, and grabbed the win when presented with the chance.

To the surprise of almost nobody, Larry Leckonby confirmed on Monday that Kevin Higgins would be back.  I am fine with this, having outlined my reasons in a prior post.

“I don’t think I would say I was satisfied (with the season),” said Leckonby, who was hired in June 2008, after The Citadel had agreed to a five-year extension for Higgins. “I had hoped the outcome would have been a little better in terms of wins and losses, and some of our performances were marred by multiple turnovers.

“I would not say I was satisfied, but I think we did improve from start to finish with the triple option, and that we’ve got a base to build on for next year.”

Leckonby’s statement that he thought the team “did improve from start to finish with the triple option” is debatable.  The lack of turnovers in the final two games (just one in those two contests) was the biggest improvement in the offense.  However, the point production and total yardage really was not much different than from the Bulldogs’ first two league games.  Of course, after the nightmarish game against Georgia Southern, anything would be an improvement.

That isn’t to say that the second season of Triple O’Higgins won’t be a smashing success.  It’s just that there aren’t any obvious markers from this year that would lead one to conclude that a breakthrough is coming.

I hope it happens, of course.  For Higgins’ sake, it needs to happen, because next year it will be now or never.  It won’t be easy, either.

The non-league slate is tougher, with Jacksonville and VMI coming to Johnson Hagood Stadium and the Bulldogs making the trip up I-26 to face the Gamecocks. There are no Chowans in that group (and I suspect that Jacksonville will be much better than some fans of The Citadel might anticipate).  The SoCon will be tough, like it always is.

Of course, it’s never easy at The Citadel.  That’s why it is important to be patient. Patience is a virtue.

Winning is a better virtue.

Football, Game 5: The Citadel vs. Western Carolina

This week’s edition of the game preview is a bit of a ramble.  I don’t know if that’s good or bad…

In last season’s preview of the Western Carolina game, I wrote (among other things) about how WCU has some built-in problems when it comes to competing successfully in football in the Southern Conference.  At the time, the Catamounts were 0-5.  It was a game The Citadel was supposed to win.

The Bulldogs lost, 14-10.

That’s the lesson to be learned when it comes to The Citadel competing in the SoCon.  The Bulldogs may face a team that is struggling and/or lacks (as a program) certain resources.  However, The Citadel will never be in a position to just show up and win while playing its “C” game.  The military school doesn’t have the capacity to do that, and never will, because of its own restrictions (note that I said restrictions, not disadvantages).

At its best as a program, The Citadel could beat any league team — and could lose to any league team.  That’s just the way it is.  In terms of physical talent, no other conference squad will ever be overmatched by the Bulldogs.

This season, Western Carolina is 1-3, including a 24-point home loss to Tusculum, a Division II school.  On Saturday, on the road at Johnson Hagood Stadium, Catamounts coach Dennis Wagner will give a true freshman quarterback his first career start.  It is a game The Citadel is supposed to win…

Western Carolina opened its season by losing 48-7 to North Carolina State, which no one could get too upset about.  Then, however, the Catamounts were embarrassed by Tusculum 54-30 (in a game that ended with 2:39 still on the clock after a lightning strike).  Plenty of Catamount fans were upset about that.

WCU followed that up with a somewhat surprising 28-14 win over Gardner-Webb, which had just upset Akron.  Last week’s 27-21 loss to UT-Chattanooga was also a bit of an eyebrow-raiser, as the game wasn’t supposed to be that close.

I decided to discount the NC State game when looking at WCU’s statistical record. Western Carolina actually scored first in that game before allowed 48 unanswered points.  Still, that was against a currently undefeated BCS school.

Against Tusculum (as mentioned above, a Division II school, and one that only won three games last season), the Catamounts gave up fumble return touchdowns of 90 and 60 yards and were also victimized by a blocked punt that resulted in a TD one play later.  Ouch.  Just before halftime, the score was 27-0.  It was just a complete debacle.

Also noteworthy:  Tusculum only had 42 net yards rushing, but threw for 410 yards without being intercepted.  The stats for this game were very different from the other WCU games in several respects — the Catamounts finished with more first downs and more time of possession, for example.

That game looks like a situation where things started terribly, and the Catamounts were simply incapable of reversing the momentum.  That may be an indication of how fragile WCU’s program is, but I think Western Carolina’s 9-40 record since 2006 is enough of an indicator.

Then came the promising performances against Gardner-Webb and UTC.

Against G-W, Western Carolina only picked up 7 first downs on offense (to the Bulldogs’ 24) and was on the short end of time of possession by almost 16 minutes. So how did the Catamounts prevail?  By taking advantage of six turnovers, that’s how. WCU intercepted five passes, returning one for a score, and also returned a fumble for a TD.  Torrez Jones had four of the five picks (although not the pick-6).

WCU’s other two scores in the game were on a 78-yard pass reception and a 60-yard run, so big plays ruled the day.  Gardner-Webb couldn’t overcome all of them, even at home.

The UT-Chattanooga game was a similar story.  The Mocs had 24 first downs to WCU’s 12 (with the Catamounts not picking up a single first down by rushing).  In this game Western Carolina committed four turnovers, all by Brandon Pechloff, the freshman who will be starting against The Citadel on Saturday (three interceptions, one fumble).

However, WCU forced four turnovers of its own, including three fumbles, one of which it returned for a TD.  WCU also scored on a trick play.  After a UTC punt gave the Catamounts great field position, WCU scored on its first play following the change in possession on a wide receiver pass.

To sum up, the Catamounts are not the type of team that sustains long scoring drives. The Catamounts have had to count on big plays, both offensively and defensively, to stay in games.    I could see The Citadel rolling up a huge edge in time of possession in this game, but it won’t mean much if the Bulldogs turn the ball over.

The big play motif is probably a key factor behind WCU coach Dennis Wagner’s decision to start Pechloff, a 6’7″ left-hander, at quarterback.  The starter for the UTC game, Zac Brindise, left that game after completing 10 of 14 passes, but for only 34 yards.  That wouldn’t be good enough for any team, and certainly not one like WCU. Pechloff may have thrown three interceptions, but his yards-per-attempt rate of 6.04 was a lot better than Brindise’s 2.43 YPA.

It’s hard to blame Wagner for taking a shot with the young QB.  It’s up to the Bulldog defense to take advantage of his inexperience and collect a few turnovers of its own.

Tangent:  Chattanooga beat writer John Frierson noted in a Tweet that “WCU coach Dennis Wagner might be the only college head coach who wears shorts on game day. I bet others wish they did.”


I don’t recall ever seeing a college head coach wear shorts during a game.  In a way it’s amazing that no one else has (or that I can’t think of anyone else, anyway). Saturday is supposed to be clear with a high of 77 degrees, so I’m guessing Wagner breaks out the long pants against The Citadel.

Frierson also noted in another tweet that Pechloff “looked good once he settled down a bit”, so this probably won’t be a case of the Bulldogs going up against an overly anxious quarterback.  Pechloff could be a find for WCU, too; he led his high school team in Illinois to the 5A championship as a senior after not starting his junior year (which according to him is the reason bigger schools did not offer him a scholarship).

Like every other high school prospect, Pechloff had a Youtube video.  You can see it here.

I would say that The Citadel needs to pressure Pechloff, but you could say that every week about every quarterback the Bulldogs defense faces.  I think another thing to do, though, is to give him different looks and force him to make reads under duress.

I also wouldn’t bet against Brindise making an appearance for WCU against the Bulldogs.

I wrote about things the Bulldogs did well/need to improve in my review of the Furman game, so I’m not going to rehash that here.  I’ll make a couple of quick points, though:

– With the triple option, there is a significant element of “take what the defense gives you” to the offense.  Terrell Dallas’ stat lines against Presbyterian and Furman the last two weeks are a good example of that.  However, I think there is still a place in the triple option to feature certain players in some situations.  The Citadel has to get the ball to its best playmakers.

It may not be that easy to free up a fullback like Dallas, but I would like to see more opportunities for Jones.  That would be Van Dyke Jones and Domonic Jones, or any other Jones on The Citadel’s campus who can be a gamebreaker.  Terrance Martin did struggle with the science of going in motion against Furman, but regardless he is another player capable of making big plays.  I hope he gets more chances to change the game.

– It’s about time for Milford Scott to block another punt.  He also has to lead all levels of football in the head-over-heels flipperama move, which is a little scary.  The special teams in general (jinx alert) have looked better this year so far, although the placekicking remains a concern.

Let’s wrap this up with a couple of sort-of-but-not-really related observations:

– One “new” tradition at Johnson Hagood Stadium that I like is the corps singing the “Olé Olé Olé” song, a la European/South American soccer matches.  In fact, I will go so far as to say that it wouldn’t be a bad idea for the corps to emulate more soccer traditions (well, maybe not the hooliganism, racism, and setting off of flares).

There is something very natural about a crowd singing/chanting without prompting or assistance from a loud, obnoxious sound system/video board.  It just felt right to me when the corps did its chant.  The best sounds to be heard at the game were that, and the band.

If the corps could throw in some large soccer-style banners, too, that would be cool. (The “Star Wars” one [actually two] that the Toronto fans did killed me.)

– The “get fired up” shorts featuring defensive players that are repeatedly aired on the video board…well, it gets old fast, especially when the same short gets played three or four times in a row between plays.  Maybe those should be more judiciously employed.

I’m ready for Saturday.

Football, Game 1: The Citadel vs. Chowan

It’s time for college football!   This year the scene at Johnson Hagood Stadium should include a lot of the following:  great tailgating, photo ops with Bulldogs both live and bronze, and, uh, fumbles…

Okay, so maybe that wasn’t the sunniest intro of all time.  I have to be honest here, though.  While I am looking forward to the season, this year I am a bit apprehensive about what lies ahead for the Bulldogs on the gridiron.  The Citadel is going to the triple option on offense, with a head coach who has never run the offense (or any similar offense) before, and with players who were mostly recruited for a very different kind of system.

The players who were recruited with the triple option in mind, of course, are all true freshmen.  The quarterback position will likely be manned by one (or more) of those true freshmen. The “knob”-starting quarterback double is a rare one, and for a reason. It’s an exceedingly difficult combination.

The Southern Conference media and coaches agree that this season could be a long one for The Citadel, just as the last two seasons have been.  The media picked the Bulldogs to finish last in the league.  The coaches ranked The Citadel eighth out of nine teams, ahead of only Western Carolina.

The Catamounts finished last in 2009, with only one league win.  That one WCU victory came against The Citadel, which tied for next-to-last.  More of the same is expected by those who follow the SoCon.

Before beginning league play, though, The Citadel will play three non-conference games.  Next week’s game at Arizona should be…interesting.  The following week the Bulldogs will take on Presbyterian, a team that went 0-11 last season, including a 46-21 loss to The Citadel.  However, even the Blue Hose would be favored against the Bulldogs’ opponent on Saturday, Chowan University, a Division II school located in Murfreesboro, North Carolina.

When the Hawks were announced as the opposition for the home opener, a collective yawn could be heard from The Citadel’s less-than-thrilled fans.  It’s hard to blame anyone for not being excited about Chowan being on the schedule, with all due respect to that school.  I’m guessing this game’s not going to be a sellout.

Having said that, let’s take a look at Chowan.

I wish I could say with confidence exactly how “Chowan” should be pronounced.  This is probably something that should concern Bulldogs play-by-play announcer Darren Goldwater a lot more than me, but I like to know these things.  I even sent an e-mail to Chowan’s department of athletics asking the question, and quickly got a response:

It’s pronounced CHO-WAN with a hard CH, just like CHOKE or CHICKEN. CHO-WAN.

That’s from somebody who works at the school, so she ought to know, but two different people have insisted to me that it’s actually pronounced “Shuh-WONN”, with the “Sh” sound at the beginning and the accent on the second syllable.  Since both of them are natives of eastern North Carolina, the region of the state that actually has decent BBQ, I tend to trust them.

“Chowan” is a derivative of “Chowanoke”, the name given to the native tribe of the region by 16th-century European explorers.  My guess is that if you were French, you pronounced it with the “Sh”, and if you were English, you went with the hard “Ch” sound.  It’s kind of like Beaufort (BO-fert), North Carolina, and Beaufort (BYOO-fert), South Carolina.

You like to-ma-to, I like to-mah-to, let’s call the whole thing off…

There is also a Chowan river, and a Chowan County — but Chowan University isn’t located in that county, but in the adjoining county of Hertford.  Naturally, this school in northeastern North Carolina is named to honor a tribe whose name means “people of the south”.

Regardless of its pronunciation, the school has been around in one form or another since 1848, when it was founded as Chowan Baptist Female Institute.  The school remained all-female until 1931, but in 1937 it became a junior college.

It reverted back to four-year status in 1992, and changed its name to the current Chowan University in 2006.  This fall, it will offer its first Masters Degree program, in Elementary Education.  Chowan remains affiliated with the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina.

About 1100 students attend Chowan.  I thought the section titled “Who we serve” on the school’s website was interesting:

The Chowan University community is committed to serving average students. By “average” we mean students with a GPA from 2.25-3.25 and “average” SAT scores (around 1300 for the three part SAT). Students below these criteria may be admitted if they show a commitment to the Chowan University experience and academic potential…

Many of our students are first generation college students which means their parents did not attend college or complete a college degree. Because of Chowan’s commitment to individual attention in a Christian environment, these students thrive here.

I liked this statement.  Too many schools insist on presenting themselves as wannabe Ivies, when everyone knows better.  Here we have a school that knows exactly what its mission is, and what it wants to do, and isn’t apologetic about it in the least.  Good for Chowan.

Chowan had a fine run in football as a junior college, almost entirely under James Garrison, who was the head coach at the school for 43 years (and for whom its football stadium is named).  Quite a few Chowan alums went on to four-year schools and then the NFL, including George Koonce, Curtis Whitley, and Mark Royals.

However, Chowan has struggled on the gridiron since becoming a four-year school itself.  Since 1993, the Hawks (formerly the Braves) have a cumulative record of 39-168-1 in Division III and (since 2005) Division II.  That includes Saturday’s 59-10 loss to Lenoir-Rhyne.

Chowan has been a football member of the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association since the 2008 season (and is now a full member of the conference). Chowan is the first non-HBCU member of the CIAA in the league’s 98-year history.

The CIAA now has 13 members, and as a result the conference’s slogan for this year is “Triskaidekaphobia: Fear the 13!”  I’m not sure what the Southern Conference’s slogan would be — “The SoCon: The Nation’s Most Transient League”?

For Chowan football, the last five years have looked like this:

2005 — 2-8, including a 56-10 loss to North Greenville (now of Willy Korn fame) and a 42-21 defeat at the hands of Allen, which dropped its program after the season

2006 — 0-10, including losses of 42-0 to Western Carolina, 52-6 to North Greenville, and 28-0 to Webber International; Webber played The Citadel the following season, with a slightly different result

2007 — 2-9, including a lot of total beatdowns:  51-0 (Coastal Carolina), 56-14 (North Greenville), Presbyterian (62-10), and Newberry (67-0)

2008 — 2-8, which featured an early-season 69-20 loss to VMI (which had concluded its 2007 campaign in memorable fashion)

2009 — 2-8, although most of the games were more competitive; the Hawks did lose 36-21 to Old Dominion, the Monarchs’ first game since restarting its program after a 68-year hiatus (ODU did finish the season 9-2, though)

Those last two seasons came under the direction of the current head coach, Tim Place.  Place is a Washington & Lee alum who was previously the head coach at Urbana, an NAIA school in Ohio.

One of the members of Place’s coaching staff is Omar Nesbit.  Nesbit was an All-SoCon lineman at The Citadel, graduating in 2002.  He is the Hawks’ offensive line coach.

According to the school’s pre-season football guide, the team runs a “multiple” offense and a “multiple” defense.  Thirteen starters are back from last year’s outfit.

Last season the Hawks scored 25.3 points per game, not bad, but allowed 35.2 ppg. While the Hawks were a respectable passing team, all 25 of its TD passes were thrown by C.J. Westler, who was the offensive player of the year in the CIAA, and who is not among the returnees.  Much like The Citadel, Chowan has to find a quarterback (it played two in the Lenoir-Rhyne game).

Chowan turned the ball over three times per game, almost double its opponents’ totals, and averaged an anemic 2.9 yards per rush.  The Hawks gave up 48 sacks.

Defensively, the Hawks allowed 4.6 yards per rush and 9.3 yards per pass attempt, which is obviously not good.  Opponents scored touchdowns 70% of the time when they entered the “red zone”.  Chowan was also not a particularly efficient punting or placekicking team.

Against Lenoir-Rhyne, Chowan allowed 513 rushing yards (6.9 per attempt).  This is noteworthy in that L-R is running the same offensive system this season it ran last year under the direction of then-offensive coordinator Tommy Laurendine — who of course is now the offensive coordinator at The Citadel.

Laurendine has his work cut out for him, based on early reports.  For example, this is how Jeff Hartsell began his recap of the August 21 scrimmage:

After watching his quarterbacks combine for six interceptions and at least five fumbled snaps in Saturday’s scrimmage, Citadel football coach Kevin Higgins stated the obvious.

“Offensively, we have a lot of work to do,” said Higgins…

You could say that, coach.  On the bright side, nine of the eighteen pass attempts in the scrimmage were caught by Bulldogs.  Alas, six of them were defenders.  At least on those plays the QB got the snap from center.  Unofficial totals from the scrimmage had the first-team offense rushing 27 times for 67 yards.

At least the defense apparently looked good, although how much of that was due to the offense’s struggles is open to question.  The kicking game again failed to impress, a problem Higgins has been unable to solve for the last two seasons.

The scrimmage on August 28 was apparently better, based on some anecdotal reports.  At this point it appears the Bulldogs will play two “true” freshman quarterbacks, Ben Dupree (from Pennsylvania) and Matt Thompson (from Florida).

Terrell “First Sergeant” Dallas will be the fullback.  There are several candidates to fill the slotback positions, led by Van Dyke Jones and injury-plagued Rickey Anderson (everyone’s crossing their fingers for you, Rickey).  The offensive line has some experience, but not at center, which in part explains the center-QB exchange problems.

We won’t know for sure exactly how the new offense will look until Saturday, but it probably will be a slightly different variation than Charlie Taaffe’s version of the wishbone.  It’s not going to be quite like Wofford’s option attack, either.

It’s probably going to most resemble the setup run by Paul Johnson at Georgia Southern, Navy, and now Georgia Tech.  With that in mind, I wouldn’t be surprised if Kevin Higgins, with a personal history of running spread passing offenses, throws the ball a little more often than you see in most triple option offenses.

He has to figure out a way to get talented tight end Alex Sellars involved in the offense. Higgins has also commented on the big-play ability of Domonic Jones, a 6’5″ redshirt freshman.  I like the idea of isolating a tall receiver on a smaller defensive back in this offense.  Of course, you have to have a quarterback capable of getting the ball to Jones.

I linked this in an earlier post, but to get up to speed on how this offense will probably operate, check out The Birddog (helmed by a grad/fan of the Naval Academy), the triple option devotee’s website of choice.  Here is a primer on the TO:  Link

While the offense is filled with question marks, the defense should have a lot of answers.  There is depth and talent on that side of the ball, particularly in the defensive backfield.  Cortez Allen has drawn pre-season accolades.  Other DBs with the potential to shine include Keith Gamble (who had an 89-yard interception return against Presbyterian last season) and Joseph Boateng (who intercepted two passes in his collegiate debut against North Carolina).

Former safety Rod Harland is now a linebacker, joining team leader Tolu Akindele and Jeremy Buncum as likely starters.  The defensive line should be solid, if a little young.  Chris Billingslea had some impressive moments last season (and made the All-SoCon freshman team as a result).  Keith Carter is a redshirt freshman who should draw notice, if only for being a defensive tackle who wears #33.

The other defensive lineman (at least that’s his roster designation) I want to mention is Milford Scott, a special teams terror who blocked three kicks last season and created havoc many other times.  He’s tall, has long arms, and describes himself as a “Charleston homeboy” from the beach.  He’s a weapon.

Unfortunately, Scott’s dynamism on special teams was an exception (not counting Andre Roberts, obviously).  While punter Cass Couey fared reasonably well, the Bulldogs continued to struggle in the placekicking department.  That’s two seasons in a row The Citadel has had sub-optimal kicking, and early returns suggest it might be three in a row.

I don’t blame the kickers.  I blame the coaching staff.  It’s the job of the staff to get that aspect of the squad fixed, either by improving the kickers on the squad or finding somebody else to kick.

The Citadel also could stand to improve its punt coverage team (Scott aside) and its kickoff return unit.  The Bulldogs will sorely miss Andre Roberts as a punt returner; look for that component of special teams to not be as effective this season.

There has been a lot of turnover in the coaching staff, not only with the new offensive scheme (where the aforementioned Laurendine is joined by offensive line coach Bob Bodine), but with the defense as well.  Higgins recruited former Wofford assistant Josh Conklin to join the staff, and later named him defensive coordinator.

Conklin will get help from another new assistant, Denny Doornbos, who was the defensive coordinator at Army during the Bob Sutton years, which were mostly good ones.  I have to gleefully point out, though, that he was the DC for this game…and for this game, too.

While all the talk in the off-season has been about the offensive scheme, and how the coaches will implement it, I think the new coaches on the defensive side of the ball will be just as important.  Generally, you would like to have more staff continuity than The Citadel has had, but in the case of the defense, I think a fresh approach may be just what was needed.

There was a sense over the last two seasons that the defense had underachieved; in particular, some observers felt the unit was not aggressive enough.  The Bulldogs’ D must be pro-active this season, and give the offense short fields with which to work. The defense will likely also have to bail the offense out on a regular basis.

This is going to be an important year for Kevin Higgins.  The off-season issues, not surprisingly, did not sit well with the alumni — and I’m not just talking about the big boosters or the message board regulars.  He also has had back-to-back disappointing seasons on the field.

The move to a new offense, and the overhaul of his coaching staff, were both bold moves made by someone who expects to stick around for a while.  They weren’t short-term stopgaps.  That is to his credit, I think.

Now, however, even with modest on-field expectations, he needs to get the fan base to buy into his program again.  After all, Larry Leckonby and company need to sell tickets and sponsorships.  Jerry Baker has Brigadier Club membership goals to obtain, whatever his methods are (high-tech, low-tech, begging, etc.).

A 1:00 pm start time against Chowan on Labor Day weekend in Charleston probably isn’t going to be a big winner as far as attendance goes.  I fully expect one of those hot-and-humid Lowcountry days that are fairly typical for this time of year. Ugh.  Of course, that’s assuming a hurricane doesn’t come into play.

I’ll be there anyway, though.  I’m ready for some football.

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