Football, Game 4: The Citadel vs. Furman

Now that all the non-conference games have been played, it’s time for Southern Conference action to begin.  The Citadel will begin the SoCon slate by going on the road to face its traditional league opening game opponent…Furman.

Uh, Furman?  As the first conference game of the season?  In September?  When has that ever happened?

It’s happened once before.  In 1976, the Bulldogs and Paladins met on September 25 (same date as this year) in Greenville (same locale as this year) to play the league opener for both schools (same situation as this year).  The Citadel edged Furman that day, 17-16 (hey, that can be the same too, as far as I’m concerned).

The other 88 gridiron meetings between the Palmetto State schools took place in October or November.  Occasionally you will hear someone (often a Paladin supporter, but sometimes a Bulldog fan) gripe about how the game should be played at the end of the season, “like it used to be,” and blame somebody (The Citadel’s former AD, Walt Nadzak, usually plays the bogeyman) for the end of “the tradition” that was the season finale.

I want to delve into this a little, because the notion that Furman and The Citadel used to always play at the end of the season is wrong, and so is the idea that there is an implied tradition with regards to end-of-season meetings for either school.

The Citadel and Furman have met 89 times.  On 19 of those occasions, the game was the last game of the (regular) season for both schools.

The Citadel and Furman met in the season finale in 1965, 1966, and 1967, and then for sixteen straight years, from 1977 through 1992.

Prior to that 16-year stretch, though, the game was generally a midseason clash, much like Clemson-South Carolina was for many years (“Big Thursday”).  The opponent that has been Furman’s season-ending opponent most often is actually Clemson, and the Paladins also have had numerous seasons end with games against Wofford and UT-Chattanooga (which replaced The Citadel in the last-game rotation for a decade).  Furman has finished campaigns with opponents as diverse as Georgia and Maryville; as recently as the 1970s, the Paladins ended seasons against Louisville and Wake Forest.

Tangent #1:  While researching Furman’s football history, I enjoyed looking through the school’s excellent media guide, which includes some cool photos.  My personal favorite is the picture of the 1927 squad, known as the “30-Mule Team”, which went 10-1 and appears to have been sponsored by Target.

The Citadel has finished its season with Furman more than any other school, but has ended its season with South Carolina almost as many times (17), and has concluded numerous campaigns with Davidson, Wofford, and VMI.  The full list of final opponents for the Bulldogs is long and includes both Florida State (during the Lee Corso era) and Florida (during the Tim Tebow era), along with Clemson, Vanderbilt, North Carolina State, Sewanee, and the Parris Island Marines, just to name a few.

Tangent #2:  The Citadel actually has finished with Furman in twenty different seasons. In 1942 the two schools played on November 2.  That would wind up being the last game of the year for The Citadel in a shortened season, as every available upperclassman was called up to serve in World War II.  The Paladins played two more games that year.  Furman also had its fair share of students who went to serve their country; neither school would field a football team again until 1946.

The argument over whether the two schools should meet at the end of the season can be looked at in two ways:  1) How important is it to play a “rival” at the end of the season, and 2) how much tradition does The Citadel-Furman have as a year-end rivalry game?  My answers would be 1) it’s of limited importance, and 2) not a whole lot.

There are great end-of-season rivalries, of course — Army-Navy, Michigan-Ohio State, Harvard-Yale.  However, there are also great midseason rivalries, like Oklahoma-Texas, or Alabama-Tennessee.  Then you have Southern Cal-Notre Dame, which is a midseason game in South Bend but is played near the end of the year in Los Angeles.

What those end-of-season games have in common, for the most part, is that they have been the final game for each school for decades.  That’s not something that can be said for The Citadel-Furman, a game that has been played more often in October (51 times) than in November (37).

Part of this, of course, is how each individual fan views the series.  For me, I have always thought of it as a midseason contest.  When the game is played in Greenville, I picture a mid-October fall day with the leaves just beginning to change color.  When it’s in Charleston, I think of gorgeous October afternoons, crisp and clear as the late-summer low country heat finally dissipates.

Okay, so maybe the weather isn’t always so nice.  Just work with me…

I also think it’s not a bad thing that it is played at a different time of year than Clemson-South Carolina.  I always felt the matchup was given short shrift from the state’s media entities when it was played on the same day.  Having it at midseason gives it a time and place of its own in the state, and some additional publicity.

I can understand why some Furman fans want the game to be the season finale. Back in that stretch during the 1980s when it was the final game of the year, Furman was at its zenith as a football program.  Alums remember those days fondly and want to revisit them in every way possible.  Homecomings on the Greenville campus usually feature men wearing Members Only jackets and women with shoulder pads bigger than those of the football players, many of them gyrating to the sound of their favorite band, Winger.  Big hair is everywhere.

The scene is very different at The Citadel, of course, as it is renowned as a forward-thinking institution, and its alums have led the way into the 21st century.

Since this is a blog that tends to focus on The Citadel, I’ll now return to the 21st century.  Let’s take a brief look at the game to be played on Saturday…

Adam Mims is good.  He already holds the Furman career record for receptions (157), and he added to that mark in a major way against a very good South Carolina defense on Saturday.  Mims had 10 catches for 202 (!) yards, which included a 72-yard TD reception.  Just for fun, he also had two rushes for 26 yards.  In his previous two games against the Bulldogs, Mims has totaled 15 receptions for 156 yards and two touchdowns.

Furman was trailing 31-19 with less than six minutes to play against the Gamecocks, but had the momentum and was driving for another score before an ill-fated pass resulted in a pick-six that iced the game.  It would have been very interesting to see what would have happened if the Paladins had scored to get within a touchdown.  I would not have bet against a 3-and-out for the Gamecock offense, and Furman then having the chance to drive down the field for a game-winning TD.

That it didn’t happen doesn’t take away from Furman’s solid performance.  The Paladins scored as many points against South Carolina as the Gamecocks’ first two opponents combined, and those opponents were Southern Mississippi and Georgia.

The bad news for the Paladins is that its two-quarterback rotation was reduced to one, as Chris Forcier (the “running” QB) suffered an injury against the Gamecocks and is out for the season.  That leaves the reigns entirely to Cody Worley, the “passing” quarterback.

This will be a blow for Furman (Forcier was averaging over 15 yards per rush, including an 85-yard TD against Colgate), but Worley seems more than capable of shouldering the load.  I’m not sure how much more of a passer Worley really is as compared to Forcier, and at any rate I would expect him to do his fair share of running too.

Furman rushed for 377 yards against Colgate, which is probably a better approximation of what to expect from the Paladins’ running attack than its numbers versus the Gamecocks.  Tersoo Uhaa rushed for 126 yards on 16 carries.  With that kind of success on the ground, the Paladins only attempted 18 passes, completing eleven — interestingly, to seven different receivers.

Furman had two tight ends each catch one pass in that game, which is about four catches less than that position seems to historically have against The Citadel on a per-game basis.  Speaking of history, starting tight end Colin Anderson is a direct descendant of the man who commanded Fort Sumter at the beginning of the Civil War.

On defense, Furman appears improved from last season, although obviously it’s hard to tell after just two games, with one of those against an FBS opponent.  The Paladins may be susceptible to the pass, but that isn’t likely to be a problem for them against the Bulldogs.  However, I do expect The Citadel to go to the air a few more times than would normally be the case.

The key man in the defensive unit is safety Max Lerner, who spends most of his time somewhere other than where the opposition wants him to be.  He’s a very good player.  How Furman chooses to employ him against The Citadel’s triple option attack will be something to watch on Saturday.

Furman has dangerous return men.  Mims handles the punt return duties, and the kickoff returners include Mike Brown, who had a 76-yard kickoff return for a TD against The Citadel in that nutty 2007 game.

Saturday’s game is going to be a “white out” for Paladin fans.  I’ve always been a little leery about the effectiveness of these types of things (with occasional exceptions).  I think it’s because I remember the time a few years ago when South Carolina had a “black out” for a night game against Florida.  The Gator QB was Rex Grossman.  After the game, an easy Florida win, someone asked Grossman about it, and he said something like “you couldn’t see any of the fans, it was like nobody was there.”

The Citadel is going to have a “red out” for Homecoming.  I’m on record (from my preview of the Presbyterian game) as being a touch dubious about that one too, especially given the opponent, but it’s all in the name of merchandising.

I don’t pretend to be an insider when it comes to The Citadel, so I certainly won’t try to suggest I know the inner workings in Paladin Land, but I have to wonder how big a year this is for Bobby Lamb.  Furman fans are getting antsy about a playoff drought, and about being an also-ran for the SoCon crown in recent years.  Losing three of four to The Citadel would not help the cause.

For The Citadel to emerge victorious in this game, it must win the battle of clichés.  By that I mean it has to win the turnover battle and control the clock and field position. The time of possession is something that I think the Bulldogs can have some success in managing, but only if the defense can prevent the Paladins from those long, 70+-yard drives that Furman has specialized in over the years.  You’ve seen the script:  the throw down the middle to an open tight end…the delayed handoff on 2nd and 7 that goes for nine yards…the quarterback keeper for six yards…etc.

The Bulldogs also need to avoid penalties.  The Citadel committed only two infractions against Arizona, but regressed against Presbyterian.  Penalties on offense are particularly costly in the triple option, as they throw the team “off schedule”.

I don’t think The Citadel’s squad has many advantages in this game.  One possible advantage is that the pressure should be on Furman, which has greater expectations this season and which excited its fan base with its excellent effort against South Carolina.  With that considered, a good start for the Bulldogs would be particularly welcome.

Regardless of how you feel about what time of year these two schools should play their annual football game, I think everyone agrees that September 25 is too early.  For that, we can all join together to blame the SoCon league office.  However, I’m sure all the fans and players will be ready to go at 2 pm this Saturday anyway.

Urban Meyer’s easy decision

You may have heard that Tim Tebow suffered a concussion against Kentucky on Saturday.  (If you hadn’t heard it, it’s probably because you suffered a concussion yourself.)  There has been a lot of debate in the media about whether Tebow should play at LSU on October 10 (the Gators don’t play this Saturday).

The discussion is likely to be amplified after the NFL released a report suggesting that:

Alzheimer’s disease or similar memory-related diseases appear to have been diagnosed in the league’s former players vastly more often than in the national population — including a rate of 19 times the normal rate for men ages 30 through 49.

Even if that doesn’t have anything to do with Tebow’s case, a connection will be made in some (if not many) quarters.

At any rate, everyone has an opinion, from professional contrarian Gregg Doyel to Orson Swindle at Every Day Should Be Saturday.  Josh Levin at Slate also opines on the matter (lots of good links in that piece).  I have a slightly different take on the Tebow situation, or at least I hope it’s a little different.

The Gators are 4-0, with wins over Charleston Southern, Troy, Tennessee, and Kentucky.  Florida’s next three games are:

  • at LSU, October 10
  • Arkansas, October 17 (Homecoming in Gainesville)
  • at Mississippi State, October 24

The goal for Florida, obviously, is to win the BCS title.  To do that, Florida has to finish #1 or #2 in the BCS standings after the conclusion of the regular season.

Let’s say Tebow doesn’t play against LSU and the Gators lose.  Does that end UF’s chances of winning the BCS title?  Of course not.  After all, last season Florida was 3-0 before losing (at home, no less) to unranked Mississippi.  After that loss, the Gators fell from #4 in both major polls to #12 (AP Poll) and #13 (USA Today Coaches’ Poll).  Florida still managed to advance to the championship game anyway.

Florida is currently ranked #1 in both polls, and would be unlikely to fall further than #5 if it lost to LSU (which is currently ranked #4) in a game played in Baton Rouge, and a game in which its All-World quarterback did not play.  There would be plenty of time for the Gators to make their way back up the rankings, particularly since two of the teams that would be above them (Alabama and LSU) play each other, and Florida would then presumably get to play the winner of that contest in the SEC Championship game.

A one-loss Florida team (with the one loss coming without Tebow) would almost certainly get the BCS title game nod over an undefeated Boise State squad or any other one-loss team from a major conference (like Southern California, Ohio State, Penn State, Virginia Tech, or Oklahoma).

Undefeated BCS teams would be a trickier proposition, but other than Texas (which is already #2 and wouldn’t have to move past the Gators in the rankings anyway), I don’t see any other team that would jump over Florida in the polls/computer rankings.  That would include teams like Iowa, Michigan, and Cincinnati.

If Tebow actually suffered a “severe concussion”, which seems possible, as he reportedly lost consciousness for about two minutes after getting hit, then he is probably better off not returning for three or four weeks.  That would mean in addition to not playing against LSU,  he could miss the Arkansas game and the Mississippi State game.  After traveling to Starkville, the Gators then play Georgia in Jacksonville.

Assuming a one-loss Florida team would play for the BCS title, it stands to reason that if the Gators can handle at least two of their next three opponents without Tebow, then there is no urgency for his return to the field, at least not until the game against UGA.  The question becomes, can Florida win those games without its talismanic quarterback?

Of course it can.  Tebow’s replacement would be backup QB John Brantley, a redshirt sophomore who was a major high school star.  Brantley originally committed to Texas before changing his mind and signing with the Gators.  His father was a quarterback at UF, and his uncle was an All-American linebacker there as well, so he has something of a pedigree.

In limited time last season, Brantley averaged over eight yards per pass attempt and threw three TDs.  Obviously almost all of that came in mop-up duty, but he definitely has potential.  Basically, there is a better than even chance that Brantley is a college quarterback stud-in-waiting.

Not only that, but I suspect a few of Florida’s players would like to prove that there is a little more to the team than just Tim Tebow.  Urban Meyer could use an extended Tebow absence to challenge his squad.

Florida without Tebow should be good enough to beat Arkansas in Gainesville, and a trip the following week to Starkville will hold no terrors, other than the incessant ringing of cowbells.  LSU in Baton Rouge is a different story, but I’m not sure how good the Bayou Bengals really are, particularly after watching them escape Mississippi State last week.  LSU will probably have its hands full with Georgia on Saturday.

(Note:  LSU may or may not be that good, but Chad Jones is that good, and at apparently just about anything, from playing the outfield to pitching to roaming the secondary to returning punts.  With or without Tebow, the Gators better keep a close watch on Mr. Jones.)

The only danger to UF in holding out Tebow that long is if the Gators A) lose two of the three games (or all three of them), or B) lose one of the three games, and then lose again later in the season.  However, even if Florida were undefeated after that stretch, losing late in the season may cost the Gators a shot at the BCS title game regardless.  A late-season loss to Vanderbilt or South Carolina (to say nothing of Florida International) would be costly no matter if UF had one loss or no losses, and losing to Florida State (in the regular-season finale) or in the SEC title game would almost certainly rule the Gators out of championship consideration.

Semi-tangent:  Another potential issue is the effect missing multiple games would have on Tebow’s Heisman candidacy.  To be honest, I think he’s playing from behind this season already as far as that award is concerned.  I get the sense that it’s Colt McCoy’s “turn” this year.

Of course, Urban Meyer technically isn’t the one making the call on Tebow’s availability; that would be the Florida medical staff (and Tebow himself).  However, he could make a statement by telling Tebow to relax for a few weeks and wait until he’s completely ready (another factor in all this is that Tebow was apparently struggling with flu-like symptoms before he suffered the concussion).  Meyer would get major kudos from just about everyone in the media for putting Tebow’s health above Florida’s title considerations, without actually risking much in the way of those considerations.

I don’t think Meyer really cares about those types of plaudits.  Meyer cares about winning; his job is to win games.  That’s fine, but I think he has an opportunity here to look good with no real downside.  Also, parents of potential recruits would probably look favorably on the decision (as in “he’ll do what’s right for my kid”), although Florida certainly has few worries when it comes to recruiting anyway.  My guess is the university’s administration would also appreciate the school being cast in a “non-troglodyte” light.

What do I think will happen?  I believe Tebow will start in Baton Rouge on October 10.  I think he’ll play well, and Florida will win, whether or not it really needs Tebow to win the game.

Football, week 1: The Citadel vs. North Carolina

There will be a lot of blue on display in this game.  If Kenan Stadium could sing a song on Saturday, it might sound like this:

I’m blue da ba dee da ba di da ba dee da ba di da ba dee da ba di…

That’s right, an Eiffel 65 reference.  What other game preview gives you that?

The Citadel begins another football season this Saturday.  Doesn’t it seem like the anticipation increases every year?  Of course, this year part of the reason Bulldog fans want the season to hurry up and get here is so the team doesn’t lose any more running backs before the first game.

Some fast facts:

–Series:  UNC leads 3-0 (all three games played in Chapel Hill)
–Scores:  14-7 UNC (1915), 50-0 UNC (1939), 45-14 UNC (1986)
–The Citadel alltime against current ACC schools:  6-63-2
–The Citadel alltime against ACC schools (when those schools were actually members of the ACC):  0-24

The last time the Bulldogs beat a current ACC school was in 1931, when The Citadel edged Clemson, 6-0 (in a game played in Florence, of all places).  The Citadel also tied Florida State in 1960, 0-0.  The Bulldogs haven’t seriously threatened an ACC opponent on the gridiron since 1976, when Clemson slipped past a solid Bobby Ross squad, 10-7.

The 1939 UNC team that thrashed the Bulldogs 50-0 was pretty good, going 8-1-1 that season.  Alas, the loss was to Duke.  The coach of the Tar Heels at the time was Raymond “Bear” Wolf.  Yes, “Bear” Wolf.  Years before, Wolf had been a baseball player; he played in one game in the majors, for Cincinnati, getting one more at bat than Moonlight Graham did (speaking of UNC alums).  Wolf had a good run in Chapel Hill until 1941, when he went 3-7.

The new coach was Jim Tatum, who is in the College Football Hall of Fame, but mostly for his work at Maryland.  Tatum only coached at UNC (his alma mater) for one year before enlisting in the Navy; he would later have enormous success in College Park, winning a national title with the Terrapins in 1953, before returning to North Carolina in 1956.  Tatum coached three more seasons in Chapel Hill before dying suddenly of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever in 1959.  He was only 46.

While Tatum was building a championship team at Maryland (he also coached Oklahoma for one season), UNC was having a very good run of its own, thanks in large part to the exploits of the great Charlie “Choo Choo” Justice.  Justice is surely one of the best college football players not to win the Heisman Trophy (he was the runner-up twice).  North Carolina played in three major bowl games during this period, the only three times the Heels have ever played in a major bowl.  UNC lost all three games.

After some good (and bad) seasons through the 1960s, UNC would have another outstanding streak of success in the early 1970s under Bill Dooley, including an 11-1 season in 1972, marred only by a loss to Ohio State.  Interestingly, North Carolina did not finish the year in the top 10 of either poll.  Dooley would move on to Virginia Tech (and later Wake Forest).

Dick Crum took over the program from Dooley, and had some excellent seasons of his own, including 1980, when the Tar Heels (featuring Lawrence Taylor) would again go 11-1, again go undefeated in ACC play — and again struggle against a big-name non-conference opponent, this time Oklahoma (losing 41-7).  That 1980 season marks the last time UNC won the ACC title.

The next year could arguably serve as a microcosm of North Carolina’s football history.  UNC, led by tailback Kelvin Bryant, scored 161 points in its first three games in 1981.  Bryant scored an amazing 15 touchdowns in those three matchups.  Then, against Georgia Tech, Bryant injured his knee.  He would miss the next four games.  UNC hung on for two games, but after improving its record to 6-0, the Tar Heels were soundly beaten at home by a mediocre South Carolina team, 31-13.

North Carolina rebounded to beat Maryland, and then played Clemson in a game that was essentially for the ACC title.  The Heels had won 11 straight ACC contests, and the Tigers were undefeated (and had beaten Herschel Walker and Georgia).  It was the first time two ACC schools had met in football when both were ranked in the AP top 10, and it would be a memorable encounter.  Clemson prevailed, 10-8, in a game where the intensity was palpable, even to TV viewers.

North Carolina would not lose again that season, buoyed to an extent by the return of Bryant for the final two regular-season games and the Gator Bowl (where the Tar Heels would defeat Arkansas).  There was, however, one final twist of the knife.  From the “Scorecard” section of Sports Illustrated (January 11, 1982):

They say you can prove anything with statistics, and in the case of North Carolina running back Kelvin Bryant, official NCAA figures would appear to show that he didn’t exist in 1981. NCAA rules specify that to qualify as a season statistical leader a football player must appear in at least 75% of his team’s regular-season games; for the Tar Heels, who played an 11-game schedule, that meant a minimum of eight games. Because of knee surgery, Bryant played in only seven games, but he made the most of his limited participation, to put it mildly, scoring 108 points. The NCAA determines scoring leaders on a per-game basis, and it awarded the scoring title to USC’s Marcus Allen, who averaged 12.5 points a game. Because he played too few games, Bryant, with a 15.4 average, didn’t qualify to be the scoring champion, which may be fair enough. But Bryant also was excluded from the list of 25 top scorers even though—surely there’s an injustice here—he ranked fifth in total points behind Allen (138 points), Georgia’s Herschel Walker (120), SMU’s Eric Dickerson (114) and McNeese State’s Buford Johnson (l10). Absurdly, Iowa State’s Dwayne Crutchfield, who scored just 104 points, is listed in fifth place, while Bryant and his 108 points are nowhere to be seen.

This little blurb came in the same edition of the magazine  that featured Clemson wide receiver Perry Tuttle on the cover, as the Tigers had just won the national championship by defeating Nebraska in the Orange Bowl.  Talk about a double whammy of what might have beens…

Crum never had a team that good again, and by the late 1980s the program was beginning to fade.  Mack Brown then arrived and basically decided to start over.  After consecutive 1-10 seasons, that may have looked like a mistake, but Brown gradually built things back up, and in his last two seasons in Chapel Hill the team went 10-2 and 11-1 .  He couldn’t quite get that one big win to push the program to the next level, though, as the Heels could not beat Florida State.  After that 11-1 season (in 1997), Brown left for a program that he felt he could push over the top — Texas.

As the above paragraphs illustrate, UNC has had an occasionally-close-but-no-cigar kind of history in football — sometimes good, sometimes very good, but never quite getting over the hump (at least nationally) for various reasons, and thus always remaining in the large shadow cast by the school’s basketball program.  As the years have gone by, the degree of difficulty in trying to escape that shadow seems to have increased.

After ten seasons of around .500 ball under two coaches, the folks at UNC decided to shake things up and bring in Butch Davis, who is known as somebody who can really recruit (proof:  the 2001 Miami Hurricanes, which had 16 future NFL first-round draft picks on its roster).  Whether Davis can put it all together at North Carolina is the big question.  There are high hopes in Chapel Hill this season, however, as he returns 38 lettermen (including 15 starters) from a team that won eight games last season and is ranked #20 in the USA Today Coaches’ Poll.

One of those returning starters is quarterback T.J. Yates, who presumably will have fully recovered from an injury suffered this past spring while playing Ultimate Frisbee.  I’m guessing that summer activities for the Tar Heels were restricted to checkers and backgammon in an attempt to keep everyone healthy.

Speaking of UNC quarterbacks, one of the curious things about the Heels’ football history is the lack of success of any North Carolina quarterback in the NFL (at least as a QB).  There have been 182 UNC football players who went on to the NFL (as of the conclusion of the 2008-09 season), but only two of them have been quarterbacks — and one of them, Jim Camp, never threw a pass in the league.  The other, Scott Stankavich, played in only four career games (no starts); two of those games came as a “replacement player” during the 1987 players’ strike.

Ronald Curry has had a decent career in the NFL, but as a wide receiver.  Curry has attempted four passes in the league, completing none of them.  There have actually been fifteen former Tar Heels who have attempted at least one NFL pass.  Only six of them, however, have actually completed one.  Stankavage is one of those six, but the Heel with the most yards passing in the NFL is halfback Ed Sutton, who threw for 146 yards in his career, with one TD.  Don McCauley is the only other UNC player to throw a TD pass in the NFL.

I totalled all the NFL passing statistics for former UNC players.  I also totalled the passing statistics for The Citadel’s Stump Mitchell (who threw nine passes during his career, including a TD toss to Roy Green) and Paul Maguire (who threw one pass during his career, completing it for 19 yards).  Check out the cumulative stats comparison:

UNC:  19-70, 315 yards, 2 TDs, 6 INTs, QB rating of 19.6
The Citadel:  5-10, 102 yards, 1 TD, 0 INTs, QB rating of 119.6

A 100-point difference in QB rating?!  Advantage, Bulldogs.  Of course, that won’t mean anything on Saturday.

Last season, the Bulldogs were 4-8.  This followed a 7-4 campaign in 2007 that had fans thinking a return to the FCS playoffs was not far away.  Instead, the Bulldogs lost six straight games during the course of the 2008 season, narrowly avoided a seventh straight defeat to a poor UT-Chattanooga squad, and then got pummeled by Tim Tebow and eventual BCS champion Florida in the season finale.

Some of those games were close (The Citadel lost three Southern Conference games by a total of 12 points), but on the whole the 4-8 record was a fair reflection of the Bulldogs’ play.  Comparing some league-only statistics from the 2007 and 2008 seasons is illuminating.  Ignoring the raw totals, which are a touch misleading (scoring was down in the SoCon last season as compared to 2007), and looking at league rankings:

-Scoring defense:  4th (2007), 8th (2008)
-Pass efficiency defense:  3rd (2007), 9th (2008)
-Red Zone defense:  2nd (2007), 9th (2008)
-Turnover margin:  2nd (2007), 5th (2008)
-3rd down conversion offense:  2nd (2007), 5th (2008)
-3rd down conversion defense:  2nd (2007, 5th (2008)

That’s basically the story of the 2008 season right there.  The defense had trouble getting off the field (SoCon opponents completed over 64% of their passes against The Citadel, and the Bulldogs only intercepted two passes all season in league play).  Inside the 20, The Citadel’s defense had no answers (allowing 23 touchdowns in 31 red zone situations).

Offensively, the running game struggled, as rushing yardage per game dropped by one-third.  Perhaps more ominously, the number of third downs converted via the rush fell substantially.  This also affected the offense’s red zone success rate, as the team scored only 18 touchdowns in 34 opportunities inside the 20 (the worst ratio in the league), and led to over-reliance on an erratic (I’m being kind here) placekicking game.  The Bulldogs only made 7 of 12 field goals attempted in red zone possessions.  No other conference team missed more than one such attempt all season.

After a season like that, it’s not surprising changes were made.  The Bulldogs are going to return to a 4-3 defense after last year’s attempt at a 3-4 resulted in the D getting pushed all over the gridiron.  That rather obvious lack of physicality was also addressed by an aggressive offseason conditioning program.  There are a couple of new defensive coaches, too.

There has been a good pre-season buzz about the defensive line, which is nice, but there also needs to be more playmaking from the linebackers and secondary.  In other words:  get stops and force turnovers.  The key is to corral more interceptions (fumble recoveries tend to be somewhat random).  Scoring touchdowns on defense would be a plus, too, but you have to get the turnovers first before you can think six.  The Bulldogs have recorded 13 sacks in conference play each of the last two seasons; a few more this year certainly couldn’t hurt.

The offensive line should be strong, although illness has been a problem in fall practice, what with one lineman suffering from an acid-reflux problem and another battling mononucleosis.  That’s still much better than the Bulldogs’ running back situation.  The starter for UNC may be walk-on freshman Bucky Kennedy, walk-on freshman Remi Biakabutuka, or one of the backup bagpipers.  Biakabutuka would definitely be the choice if the opening-game opponent were Ohio State rather than North Carolina, as just the name “Biakabutuka” on his jersey would be enough to unnerve the Buckeyes, thanks to his older brother Tim.

Another potential threat as a runner is backup quarterback Miguel Starks, who last year impressed many observers just by standing on the sideline during games.  However, he’s never played a down of college football.  It will be interesting to see what he can do once he gets on the field.

I’m of the opinion that the incumbent starting quarterback, Bart Blanchard, didn’t have that bad a season last year, as I don’t think he got much help from the rest of the backfield (and the offensive line seemed to lack consistency).  He is a bit limited as a runner, which is not ideal in Kevin Higgins’ offense, but that was true the year before as well and the Bulldogs managed just fine when he stepped in for Duran Lawson.  Higgins wants him to have a better completion percentage, but part of the problem Blanchard had last season trying to avoid incompletions was a limited number of passing targets — basically, his options were the tight ends and Andre Roberts.

Of course, Roberts is a nice target to have.  It would really help Roberts (and Blanchard) if a second receiver emerged this season (Kevin Hardy?), which never happened last year.  If another Bulldog wideout does develop into a threat, Roberts could wind up with fewer catches but more yards per reception.  Roberts in space is a big play waiting to happen, as anyone who has watched him return punts can attest.  I’m glad he’s not going to be returning kickoffs this year, though.  I worry about him wearing down over the course of the season.

The placekicking needs to be much improved.  Last year was just not acceptable.  The Bulldogs also must replace Mark Kasper, who was a solid punter for four seasons (second in the league in net punting last year).  The Citadel needs to improve its kickoff coverage (next-to-last in the conference in 2008).  Basically, the special teams must get better across the board (with the exception of the punt return team, which thanks to Roberts was the nation’s best unit).

As for Saturday’s game, a lot depends on whether Blanchard and Roberts have fully recovered from sprained ankles each suffered during fall practice.  If they are both good to go, I would expect the Bulldogs to be reasonably competitive against North Carolina.

While the Heels return 15 starters, they must replace some excellent wide receivers (including Hakeem Nicks) and two starters on their offensive line.  UNC’s o-line has taken a bit of a hit in the pre-season with some injuries and attrition (nothing like The Citadel’s running back situation, though).  The starting group should still be solid, however.

T.J. Yates should be okay after his frisbee ordeal.  This will be his third year starting games at QB for UNC.  Yates is good at taking care of the ball (only four interceptions last season).  UNC has a nice corps of running backs, led by Shaun Draughn, who rushed for 866 yards in 2008.  The Tar Heels will definitely need to find some new wideouts, as no returning receiver caught more than 11 passes last year.

UNC rotates a number of defensive linemen, and almost all of them are very good athletes (and most of them are huge).  Marvin Austin has first-round pick potential, Cam Thomas has all the makings of a future NFL nosetackle, and Ladson native Robert Quinn won the ACC’s Piccolo Award after recovering from a brain tumor to have an outstanding freshman campaign.

Despite this embarrassment of riches, the Tar Heels didn’t do a particularly good job creating sacks last season (only 22 all season; the d-line only had 5.5 of those).  Still, this group will be a formidable challenge for The Citadel’s offensive line.

North Carolina has a really good trio of starting linebackers, led by Bruce Carter, who doubles as a great kick-blocker (five last year).  The defensive backfield should be excellent, with several ball hawks ready to repeat last year’s success in intercepting passes (the Heels had 20 picks).

UNC did struggle defensively on third down conversions, ranking last in the ACC in that category.

North Carolina’s special teams were okay last year, although its net punting was mediocre.  The Heels will be breaking in a new punter this season, which might be good news for Andre Roberts (and Mel Capers), although first The Citadel’s defense has to actually force a punt.

Last season UNC opened with McNeese State, and struggled before finally winning the game 35-27.  It should be pointed out that the Cowboys were a solid FCS club (finishing 7-4, and featuring a quality offense), and that the game was affected by a lightning delay.  If anything, that relatively close call may make the North Carolina players more wary of FCS opposition.

The goals for this game, from The Citadel’s point of view, are for the team to be as competitive as possible, and to avoid major injuries.  It isn’t realistic to expect a victory, particularly against a pre-season Top 20 team.  The Bulldogs just want to make UNC work for a win.

To do that, avoiding turnovers on offense is a must.  I suspect that The Citadel is not going to have much of a rushing attack in this game, which is going to be a problem.  It’s also going to be a tough game to break in a new punter.  I think the Bulldog defense has a chance to establish itself to a certain extent.  However, the UNC offense is not turnover-prone and is more than capable of grinding out drives (although this may not be a bad thing for The Citadel; the fewer big plays, the better).

Obviously, the players won’t be thinking the way I’m thinking.  They’re traveling to Chapel Hill looking for a victory, which is a good thing.  That’s how they should approach this game.  Besides, you never know what might happen.  After all, my fantasy football team is called The Jack Crowes.

I’m just ready for kickoff.

Seeing both sides of a mismatch on the same day

The bad side

Well, the football game went about as expected.  I was hoping that Florida wouldn’t get to 70, but The Citadel really didn’t make that much of an effort to shorten the game (in terms of play calling).  On the other hand, scoring three touchdowns was a pleasant surprise.  Unfortunately, the Bulldogs went 1-for-3 on extra points.  Kevin Higgins is going to have to do something about the placekicking before next season.

The placekicking was the only negative from the special teams, which were otherwise solid across the board yesterday.  The defense was completely overmatched, but the offense didn’t do all that badly.  While there were three turnovers, at least none of them were converted by Florida’s defense into touchdowns.  In that respect The Citadel fared much better than South Carolina did the previous week against Florida.  It’s also worth noting that due to injury, The Citadel actually inserted its backup quarterback, Cam Turner, into the game before Florida replaced Tim Tebow.

From the strange-but-true department (I guess I’m channeling Jayson Stark here):  South Carolina QBs Stephen Garcia and Chris Smelley both failed to throw a touchdown pass against the Gators.  The same was true for highly-touted Georgia QB Matthew Stafford.  Wide receiver and former walk-on Scott Flanagan of The Citadel, however, threw a TD pass against Florida on only one attempt.

Also, I would say that losing 70-19 is better than losing 56-6.  My reasoning is as follows:  Florida outscored South Carolina by more than an 9-1 ratio, but only outscored The Citadel by a little more than a 3.6-1 ratio.  Advantage, Bulldogs.

The good side

The basketball game also went about as expected, and this was a good thing.  The Citadel was never threatened by Cincinnati Christian and pulled away down the stretch for a convincing victory.  CCU had no answer for Cameron Wells, who had a good game not only on the stat sheet, but in terms of letting the game come to him.  Zach Urbanus had a strong first half and a solid overall game.  The Bulldogs did a good job in this game of getting to the foul line and converting.  Getting their fair share of free throw attempts has to be a priority for the Bulldogs, especially when shooting foul shots is one of The Citadel’s strengths.

Speaking of that, Phillip Pandak got into the game late, and was almost immediately fouled.  I was rooting for him to make both foul shots, and he did.  By doing so he equaled his number of made free throws from all of last season.  He only had four attempts at the line last year, which was amazing, because he attempted 101 field goals during the course of the season.  Now this year in two games he has one field goal attempt and two made free throws…

The Citadel took care of the ball in this game, a welcome change from the previous three games, and the pace of the game was in line with where the Bulldogs want to be.  The Citadel allowed CCU to grab a few more rebounds than I would have liked, and didn’t defend the three-point shot in the first half as well as it should have (the defense on the perimeter noticeably improved in the second half).

It was the second, and final, game of the season against a non-Division I opponent.  Now it’s time to try to win a game against a D-1 foe.  The Citadel’s first opportunity to do so will come on Tuesday night at the North Charleston Coliseum against Charleston Southern, one of two Division I teams the Bulldogs actually beat last season.

Avoiding trombone music

The Citadel is playing Florida this week.  In football.  This could be a tough game.  My understanding is that the Gators are pretty good.  This Tebow guy, he’s received some press.

The worst loss in football for The Citadel occurred in 1958, when Georgia and quarterback Fran Tarkenton defeated the Bulldogs in Athens, 76-0.  After the last touchdown, the UGA band played “76 Trombones” from The Music Man.  I am hoping that on Saturday, Florida’s band doesn’t have a reason to start playing Nena’s biggest hit…

Also to be avoided:  possible references to country music singer Larry Gatlin (who scored a touchdown in Houston’s 100-6 victory over Tulsa in 1968), Neil Lomax (quarterback for Portland State the night the Vikings beat Delaware State 105-0), and Cumberland College (222-0 ring a bell?).

Ideally, The Citadel will score, not suffer any catastrophic injuries, and keep the game within 50 (which would better South Carolina’s effort from last week).  I would settle for holding the Gators under 70 points, though, to be perfectly honest.

There is no reason to preview Florida, because everyone already knows everything that is necessary to know about the Gators.  Tim Tebow can cure cancer, Percy Harvin is faster than Mercury, and Urban Meyer is an outstanding coach, if seemingly a bit humorless, possibly because his parents named him Urban.

There is this guy named “Mr. Two-Bits” who does some little number that all the Gator fans like.  He’s been doing it for 60 years, and he’s doing it for the last time at this game.  He actually went to The Citadel for a couple of years, but he’s going to be all-out rooting for Florida anyway, so you will excuse me if I don’t lionize him.

In the event Florida’s team oversleeps en masse and forfeits the game to The Citadel, it would be the first victory for the Bulldogs over an SEC team since that famous (or infamous, if you’re into pig calls) 10-3 victory over Arkansas in 1992.  Jack Crowe, of course, was fired after that game as head coach of the Razorbacks.  It’s not every day a coach is fired after the season opener.

I will say this:  the players and coaches for The Citadel will take this game very seriously, and won’t like some of the snide remarks that have been made about it.  I doubt my saying that I hope the game stays within 70 would go over well with some of them, either.  They are headed to Gainesville to compete, and measure themselves against some of the best players in the country.  I just don’t want them to get embarrassed, but they obviously can’t and won’t think that way – and that’s a good thing.

One final thing…I’m not a huge fan of every article about The Citadel, even ones that are positive, but I thought this article by David Jones was excellent, so if you haven’t read it already, you might give it a look.

(Kenny, I flinch too.)

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