Football, Game 2: The Citadel vs. Arizona

Gametime:  10 pm ET, September 11.

Telecast:  KWBA, local channel 58 in Tucson, and on Fox College Sports Pacific (FCS-Pacific), joined in progress; announcers are Dave Sitton, John Fina, and sideline reporter Glenn Howell

There won’t be many schools this season who will face in consecutive weeks opponents as different as Chowan and Arizona.  Chowan is a small Division II school in North Carolina.  Arizona is a large Division I (FBS) school, the flagship university of a populous western state.  Chowan has about 1,100 undergraduate students. Arizona has 30,000.  Indeed, Arizona has more undergraduate and graduate students than The Citadel has living alumni.

The difference is reflected in the football teams as well, of course, and thus The Citadel’s football team has its work cut out for it this week as it ventures to Tucson, the longest trip in program history.  Since The Citadel has never played Arizona (or any Pac-10 school) before, let’s take a brief look at the history of the University of Arizona’s football team.

The Wildcats (originally just known as the “Varsity”) started playing football in 1899, 14 years after the school’s founding.  Keep in mind that Arizona didn’t become a state until 1912 (it was the 48th and last of the contiguous states).  It had been a recognized U.S. territory since 1862.

The first official coach of the football team was “Pop” McKale, for whom the McKale Center (UA’s basketball arena) is named.  McHale also coached the basketball team for a time and was the school’s longtime director of athletics.

McHale was also a central figure in the story of Arizona’s great tradition, its motto “Bear Down”.  In 1926, Arizona quarterback and student body president John “Button” Salmon was critically injured in a car accident after the first game of that season. McHale regularly visited Salmon in the hospital until Salmon’s death on October 18.

During the coach’s final visit, Salmon told McHale to “tell them…tell the team to bear down.”  McHale reportedly told the team just that, repeating Salmon’s words during a game against New Mexico State which the Wildcats managed to win, 7-0.  It’s a tale not unlike Knute Rockne’s “Win one for the Gipper” speech for Notre Dame.

Ever since, “Bear Down” has been the official slogan for all of the university’s athletic teams.

Salmon is one of two players to have his jersey retired at Arizona.  The other, running back Art Luppino, led the nation in rushing twice in 1954 and 1955.

Arizona first joined a conference in 1931, becoming a charter member of the Border Conference, and remaining in that league until it disbanded in 1961.  Other schools in the league included Texas Tech, UTEP, New Mexico, New Mexico State, and Arizona State.  They were joined at various times by Hardin-Simmons, Northern Arizona, and West Texas A&M.  The Wildcats won three league titles while in the Border Conference and played in one bowl game during that time, losing the 1949 Salad Bowl (yes, Salad Bowl) to Drake (yes, Drake).

Arizona then became a founding member of the Western Athletic Conference (WAC). That league was basically a merger of the Border and Skyline Conferences, except not every school in those leagues was invited (New Mexico State, for example).  Also in the original WAC:  Arizona State, BYU, Utah, New Mexico, and Wyoming.  Arizona won two league titles in the WAC and played in one bowl game, the 1968 Sun Bowl (losing to Auburn).

Arizona and Arizona State gradually outgrew the WAC, mostly because the state of Arizona was outgrowing (by percentage) most of the other states in and around the mountain time zone.  The development of air conditioning helped produce a population boom in the state, and the increase in population/resources trickled down to the state universities.  The two schools joined the Pac-8 (renamed the Pac-10) in 1978, and have remained in that conference since then.

The hallmark of the program in that time, much to the frustration of  Arizona’s fans, has been its inability to make a trip to the Rose Bowl.  Its rival, Arizona State, has been to the big game twice (winning once), but the Wildcats have never been.  Arizona has come close on two occasions, both times under the direction of Dick Tomey.

In 1993, Arizona shared the Pac-10 title with UCLA and Southern California, but lost a tiebreaker to UCLA for the Rose Bowl berth.  This is the only time the Wildcats have claimed even a piece of the Pac-10 crown.  Arizona had lost earlier in the season to UCLA, but as late as November 14 still had a shot at Pasadena after a UCLA loss. However, the Wildcats blew a 20-point lead and lost to California, 24-20, eliminating them from Rose Bowl consideration.

The Wildcats did rebound from that disappointment, beating their rivals in Tempe and then dominating Miami 29-0 in the Fiesta Bowl to finish the season 10-2, with the bowl game arguably being the pinnacle of Arizona’s “Desert Swarm” defense, which was the national identity of the program in the mid-1990s (and personified by Tedy Bruschi).

The Fiesta Bowl victory was a major reason why Sports Illustrated ranked Arizona No. 1 in its 1994 preseason issue, but after starting the campaign 4-0 the Wildcats were upset at home by Colorado State.  Arizona also suffered road losses to Oregon and Southern California and finished with a Freedom Bowl loss to Utah and a disappointing 8-4 season.

In 1998, Arizona finished 12-1, losing only to UCLA (albeit at home by four touchdowns).  However, the Wildcats were looking good for a Rose Bowl appearance anyway, as the Bruins completed their Pac-10 schedule undefeated and were poised to play for the mythical national title at the Fiesta Bowl.  That would have sent Arizona to the Rose Bowl.

Unfortunately for Arizona (and the Bruins, as it turned out), UCLA had to play a December game originally delayed by a hurricane against the Hurricanes — and lost to Miami, 49-45.  That result meant the Bruins took the berth in the Rose and the Wildcats had to settle for the Holiday Bowl (which they won, beating Nebraska).

When I was looking at Arizona’s football history, and wondering what was preventing Arizona, a big school in a BCS conference with success in a lot of sports other than football, from grabbing the brass ring, one thing stood out.  It must have stood out to Joe Tessitore and Rod Gilmore too, because while calling the Wildcats’ 41-2 dismantling of Toledo last Friday on ESPN, they mentioned (and marvelled at) the following factoid:

Arizona hasn’t had a quarterback drafted by the NFL since 1985.

Think about that.  There can’t be that many BCS programs who have gone that long between QB draft picks.  In fact, that QB (10th-round pick John Conner, who did not throw a pass in the NFL) is the only quarterback out of Arizona drafted since 1972 (when another Wildcat signal-caller who never played in the league, Brian Linstrom, was selected in the 16th round).  It’s not like Arizona’s been running the wishbone all this time, either.

Arizona’s football program has had three different quarterbacks make a total of 29 starts in the NFL, none since 1974.  So in all the time UA has been in the Pac-10, it’s never developed an NFL quarterback.

It’s hard to win big games, or even get to big games, without a pro-caliber quarterback.  Since 1975, only one Arizona alum has thrown a TD pass in the NFL — a punter, Josh Miller, who did it for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2003 (an 81-yard pass play, incidentally).  Here is a little chart comparing alums from Arizona, The Citadel, and a mystery school:

TD passes thrown in the NFL since 1975

Arizona — 1

The Citadel — 1

Mystery School — 0

If you’re wondering, the graduate of The Citadel with a touchdown pass is Stump Mitchell.  Now, that mystery school that hasn’t had a grad with a TD toss in the NFL in the last 35 years?  Well, it’s a school that has quite a bit in common with Arizona on the athletics front.  It’s a “basketball school” that has won multiple titles in other sports, but hasn’t been able to parlay its success in those sports into a nationally prominent football program.

Like Arizona, a good argument can be made that the reason for that has a lot to do with never having an “NFL ready” quarterback.  What school is that?  Why, it’s the BCS school The Citadel played last season.

North Carolina.

I wrote about UNC’s football history in my preview of The Citadel’s game against the Heels last year.  At the time, I noted that the overall QB rating for players from The Citadel to have thrown a pass in the NFL (which would be just two, Mitchell and Paul Maguire) was exactly 100 points better than their UNC counterparts (119.6-19.6). Arizona is a little better than North Carolina in this respect (47.7), but again the mighty Bulldogs prevail.

What will this mean on Saturday?  Not much, since it’s probable the Wildcats have finally found themselves an NFL prospect at QB in Nick Foles.  Foles is a native of Austin (went to the same high school as Drew Brees) who began his collegiate career at Michigan State before transferring to Arizona after one season.

He has NFL size (6’5″, 245 lbs.) and a good arm.  Last season he completed 63% of his passes for 19 TDs (9 interceptions).  His yards per attempt was not that high (just over 6 yards), but he was only sacked 13 times all season (so not a lot of negative plays).  His three 300-yard games included a 4-TD effort against league champion Oregon.

Foles isn’t the only impressive skill-position player on the Wildcat offense.  Nic Grigsby, when healthy, is an outstanding running back.  Grigsby averaged over seven yards per carry last season.  His problem was a bad shoulder that cost him three games and limited him in several others.  He appears to be healthy now.  Then there is Juron Criner, a rangy 6’4″ wideout who hauled in nine touchdowns last season.

Criner had a ridiculous game against Toledo on Friday, catching eleven passes for 187 yards and a touchdown.  Forty-five of those reception yards came on a one-handed, falling-down circus catch in the third quarter.  His TD grab was almost as good.

Arizona had to replace seven defensive starters from last season, but you would have never known it against Toledo, which did not score on the Wildcat defense (the Rockets’ only two points came on a safety called for offensive holding in the end zone).

Arizona is as good a bet as any team to make a run at the Pac-10 title.  Oregon, the defending champ (and coming off a 72-0 demolition of hapless New Mexico), probably has to be the favorite, but if the Ducks slip it’s possible the Wildcats could be the team to make the move to the top and claim the school’s first Rose Bowl trip.

Arizona was picked in the middle of the conference pack in most preseason polls, likely thanks to getting manhandled 33-0 in the Holiday Bowl by a certain Mr. Suh and Nebraska.  Its most recent impression among those who vote in pre-season polls was not a good one.  Otherwise, I think a team with the talent (particularly on offense) that Arizona has might have been nationally ranked to start the season.

Arizona’s coach is Mike Stoops, also known as “Bob Stoops’ brother”.  He has very slowly built the program since arriving in 2004 (wins per year:  3, 3, 6, 5, 8, 8).  Some Arizona supporters have become a bit impatient.  He needs to have a good year this year.  He’s probably going to have one, so I wouldn’t assign him “hot seat” status, but if the Wildcats were to tank this season, I think he would be out the door.

It could be a long night for The Citadel.  In fact, it would be surprising if it weren’t.  The problem is that the defense is going to have some matchup problems (particularly with Criner), and will not be likely to get much help from the offense.

Last season against BCS foe North Carolina the defense got no help from the offense either, but the UNC offense wasn’t dynamic enough to take full advantage of its field position and time of possession.  As a result, the Bulldogs lost, but only by a 40-6 score.  Arizona may not have as good a defense as UNC did, but The Citadel’s offense will be worse (as it is still in its embryonic stage in the triple option) and the Wildcat offense is considerably more talented than the Heels’ O was.

I wrote about some on-field things that concerned me in my review of the Chowan game.  I am hoping that the blocking improves, that the quarterbacks get more comfortable taking the snap and making the proper reads, and that the defense does a better job in assignments and tackling.   Against Arizona, I don’t really expect to see much visible progress from the offense, although I am willing to be pleasantly surprised.

I do think that the one player who might not be physically out of place in the game for The Citadel’s offense is Domonic Jones.  I could see him making a play or two.  First, of course, the QB has to get him the ball, or at least give him a chance to get the ball.

On the other hand, I do expect the defense, even against a squad as talented as the Wildcats, to avoid multiple mental errors and not miss tackles.  That should happen. If it doesn’t, things could get ugly.

I’ll be watching anyway…

Football, Game 10: The Citadel vs. UT-Chattanooga

Note:  it can be difficult to figure out what to call the athletic teams of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.  Recently the school began using a ‘C’ mark, for “Chattanooga”.  The university’s teams have variously been referred to over the years as “UT-Chattanooga”, “Tennessee-Chattanooga”, “UTC”, and “Chattanooga”.

The nickname/mascot history is even more tangled.  A “moccasin” used to be a snake, then a shoe, then a cartoon Cherokee Indian called ‘Chief Moccanooga’, and now a mockingbird train conductor (and “moccasin” has morphed into “moc”, for mockingbird).

There is an explanatory page on the school’s website.  The page includes a quotation from Jimmy Fallon.  As you may have guessed, the quote is not very funny.

In the post that follows, I will call the school either “UT-Chattanooga”, or “UTC”, because that’s what I’ve always called it, and I see no particular reason to change.

Around this time last year The Citadel played UT-Chattanooga in Charleston.  It was Homecoming for the Bulldogs, and everyone expected a big win, since the Mocs were 1-9 (and would eventually finish 1-11).  At that time I wrote about how UTC had collapsed as a program after consistently challenging for league honors in its first 10-15 years in the Southern Conference.

Well, The Citadel did win that day, but barely, letting a team playing out the string with a lame-duck coach hang around and nearly steal the victory.  The Bulldogs survived thanks to Andre Roberts’ last-minute punt return TD, but despite winning the game, it was almost as poor a showing as The Citadel had for this year’s Homecoming.

UT-Chattanooga replaced Rodney Allison with Russ Huesman, who basically has the ideal background for a UTC head coach.  Huesman played high school football at famed Moeller High School in Cincinnati for Gerry Faust, who was destined to become a much-maligned coach for Notre Dame (albeit one who never lost to Navy).  Huesman then played college football for the Mocs, with his first two years under Joe Morrison and his last two under Bill “Brother” Oliver.

Huesman was a longtime assistant at William & Mary, where he coached the secondary (Huesman was a DB himself at UTC) and was later the defensive coordinator.  Players he coached while with the Tribe include longtime NFL interception magnet Darren Sharper, Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, and Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator Sean McDermott.  That’s not a bad list of guys to have as references.

He then moved to Memphis for several seasons, including a stretch as recruiting coordinator for the Tigers, before spending five seasons as the defensive coordinator for Richmond, the defending FCS champions.

That’s a nice resume for any prospective head coach at the FCS level; being an alum is an even bigger bonus.  Huesman seems to have given the program some much-needed enthusiasm.  Home attendance has increased significantly, with three of the ten biggest crowds in Finley Stadium history so far this season.  There was even a bonfire on Wednesday night.

Another thing Huesman did was bring in a transfer from Tennessee to play quarterback.  B.J. Coleman has had a solid season for the Mocs, nothing flashy stats-wise but generally getting the job done.

Coleman has thrown fourteen touchdowns against six interceptions, although he did throw three picks last week against Appalachian State.  Five of his six interceptions for the season, in fact, have come in the last three games.  Coleman is a sophomore who will have two more years of eligibility after this season.

The Vols transfer has spread the ball around, although his favorite target is definitely Blue Cooper, who has 68 receptions and could conceivably make the All-SoCon squad ahead of Andre Roberts (Elon’s Terrell Hudgins is a lock for the other first-team spot at wide receiver).

UTC suffered a blow when running back Bryan Fitzgerald was injured and lost for the season.  Freshman Chris Awuah is the leading rusher for the Mocs, but he is averaging just 3.2 yards per carry.  UTC is last in the league in rushing offense.

UTC has respectable, if not eye-popping, defensive statistics across the board, generally ranking in the upper half of the SoCon in most categories for conference-only games.  The Mocs have struggled, however, in defending 3rd-down conversions; the Mocs D is 7th in the league (The Citadel is 8th in the league, ahead of only Furman).  Another sore spot for the defense is red zone conversion rate; UTC is last in the SoCon, and has allowed 17 touchdowns in 25 opponents’ possessions inside the 20.

The Mocs are tied for the lead in interceptions in conference play with eight; free safety Jordan Tippet has five of his own.

One defensive stat that is very impressive for UTC:  sacks.  The Mocs have 24 sacks on the season; their 16 sacks in league play in second-best in the conference.  The primary sack-master is right defensive end Josh Beard, who has 10.5 of them so far this year.  His partner in crime on the other side of the line, freshman DE Joshua Williams, has 6.

Despite the mediocre 3rd-down defense numbers and lack of a rushing game, UTC leads the league in time of possession.  The Mocs don’t hurt themselves with penalties (second in the SoCon).  UTC is next-to-last in net punting, but features an outstanding placekicker in Craig Camay, who is 13-16 converting field goals this year, with a long of 52.  Camay is also a weapon for onside kicks; the Mocs have recovered four of five onside kick attempts in league action.

A few other odds and ends:

– I was surprised to find out that The Citadel is UT-Chattanooga’s most common opponent.  Saturday’s game will be the 43rd meeting between the two schools.  The school in second place on the Mocs most-played list?  Tennessee, which has faced UTC on 41 occasions.  The Vols are 37-2-2 in those games.

– UTC is 5-4, but if it has dreams of a winning season, it probably needs to beat The Citadel.  Next week, the Mocs play Alabama.  Yikes.

Tangent:  what is with the SEC and these late-season matchups against FCS schools?  Last week, there were four such games:  Tennessee Tech-Georgia, Furman-Auburn, Northern Arizona-Mississippi, and Eastern Kentucky-Kentucky.

Last year, of course, The Citadel closed out its season by playing Florida.  Why aren’t these games being played in the first couple of weeks of the season? I hope all of them were Homecoming games.

– UTC’s game notes reference The Citadel’s football stadium (on the same page) as “Haggod Stadium” , “Johnson Hagood Stadium”, and “Sansom Field”.

– The Citadel has never won four straight games against UT-Chattanooga.  The Bulldogs currently enjoy a three-game winning streak versus the Mocs.

It’s hard to say what The Citadel’s chances on Saturday are, since it’s hard to determine which Bulldog team will show up — the one that played Appalachian State and Furman, or the one that played Elon, Western Carolina, and Wofford?

It will be interesting to see who starts at quarterback.  If I had to guess (and it’s only a guess), I would say that Miguel Starks, even if just “85%”, will get the nod.  Just the thought of a gimpy Bart Blanchard sitting in the pocket as the two sack-happy UTC defensive ends converge on him is cringe-inducing…

I certainly hope that the Bulldogs are more competitive than they were last week.  This is a big game for UTC, which has a chance for a winning season.  Given that the Mocs won a total of six games in the previous three years, that would be a major accomplishment.  UT-Chattanooga will be ready to play on Saturday.  The Bulldogs better be ready as well.

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