Bulldogs show some bite, and just in time

The Citadel 38, Furman 28.  Out of the ashes…

The Bulldogs had managed to put together two of the worst performances by the football team in quite some time, so expectations were low heading into the battle with Furman.  With Bart Blanchard hobbled by a toe injury, all the quarterback snaps were taken by redshirt freshman Miguel Starks.  He proved more than ready for the challenge, much to the chagrin of a Paladin defense that never really figured out a way to stop him (other than forcing fumbles — more on that later).

Also up to the challenge this week were offensive coordinator Dave Cecchini and head coach Kevin Higgins, who deserve some praise after drawing criticism for the playcalling in some previous games (particularly the Western Carolina contest).  With Starks in the game, the run/pass ratio changed markedly.  Going into the Furman game, here were the relevant numbers for the season:

  • Rush attempts — 184 (677 yards)
  • Pass attempts — 181 (1020 yards)

There was balance, to be sure, but not a lot of success, as the Bulldogs were averaging just 3.68 yards per carry and only 5.64 yards per pass attempt.  Then came the Furman game:

  • Rush attempts — 49 (296 yards)
  • Pass attempts — 19 (183 yards)

The Bulldogs averaged 6.04 yards per rush against the Paladins and 9.63 yards per pass attempt.  You can win a lot of games averaging six yards per carry and nine yards for every pass thrown.

Starks was the headliner, but Van Dyke Jones appears to be the solution at running back, based on this game as well as the Appalachian State contest.  He looked very good teaming up with Starks on the various read-option plays.  He picks up tough yards, and he’s got the potential to break long runs (as the Mountaineers’ defense can attest).

The offensive line had its best game of the year, by far.  There was some discussion about fundamentals and correcting mistakes and such, but ultimately it seemed to me that the linemen much preferred the aggressive, run-oriented approach the Bulldogs had on Saturday to the usual pass-to-set-up-run attack.  It’s a cliché, but I think the guys liked the “hit ’em in the mouth” strategy.  I know a lot of older alumni appreciated it.

It wasn’t just a run-run-pass scenario, either.  Nine of Starks’ nineteen pass attempts came on first down (he threw on first down a little over 25% of the time, enough to keep the Paladins honest).  On third and long, The Citadel actually ran the ball five out of seven times.  The Bulldogs were totally committed to the run on third and short/medium, rushing on all five of those occasions.  Conversely, on four second-and-short plays The Citadel threw twice.  It was a nice mix.

Starks threw six passes in each of the first three quarters (one pass in the third quarter was wiped out by a penalty).  In the fourth, with the Bulldogs protecting a double-digit lead, he would throw only three times (a flag erasing one attempt).  The drive that put the game away featured no passes, with Starks scoring the clinching TD on a 23-yard run.

The other noticeable thing about the passing game was that Starks threw exclusively short and intermediate passes in the first half, but started to go deep in the third quarter.  On consecutive pass attempts in that quarter, he threw a slant pass for 20 yards, followed by a 28-yard TD toss on a post route (both to Scott Harward), a 38-yard post would-be TD to Andre Roberts wiped out by a holding penalty, a 35-yard pass to Roberts (sensational catch by Andre), and an incomplete post pass to Alex Sellars (which would have resulted in a 45-yard TD if the connection had been made).

Starks’ touch on his passes was generally good, and his receivers helped him on the few occasions where he was off target.  There were two legitimately outstanding catches, one by Kevin Hardy (arguably the best reception Hardy has made for the Bulldogs to date) and Roberts’ scintillating effort in the third quarter, which got the Bulldogs out of a field position hole (moving the ball from the 12 to the 47).  Only one pass all day was dropped.

Of course, it’s easier to call plays when your team leads the entire game, as was the case on Saturday for The Citadel.  After a very impressive opening drive for a TD, the Bulldogs took advantage of an unintentional onside kick (the wind becoming a temporary 12th man) to grab a 14-0 lead before Furman could run a play on offense.

This would ultimately lead to a rather unusual situation, as despite scoring 28 points in the game Furman’s offense never had the ball with less than a 10-point deficit facing it.  In other words, at no point in the game were the Paladins within one drive of tying the game or taking the lead.  Furman would get within 3 points at 24-21 early in the third quarter, but The Citadel scored a TD on its next drive, stretching the lead back to 10, and the Paladins could draw no closer.

Furman’s failures were mostly on defense, but Paladins QB Jordan Sorrells will surely want to forget the two interceptions he threw, both in the end zone, and both with Furman trailing 31-21.

The first of the two was particularly bad, as on first-and-ten at the Bulldog 26 he threw the ball late over the deep middle of the field and into the wind, while rolling out in the opposite direction, and with three defenders in the vicinity.  Calling that pass “ill-advised” doesn’t really do it justice.  I thought he played fairly well other than that, though.  It’s hard to lead a comeback when you trail the entire game by double digits.

It wasn’t all great for The Citadel, though.  The defense continued to struggle with preventing long drives.  Furman converted six out of eleven third down attempts, and was 3-for-3 on 4th down tries.  The Paladins did not punt until the third quarter.  Truthfully, the defense has not had a solid game all season, and I am including the Princeton game in that analysis, despite the Bulldogs allowing just seven points, because the Tigers moved the ball fairly well for a significant portion of that game (and also because Princeton is just not a very good team this year).

Looking back, an argument could be made that the defense’s most satisfactory performance came in the season opener against North Carolina.

Against the Paladins, the Bulldogs only had one sack, although Furman is not a team prone to giving up sacks.  What the defense did do well was create some critical turnovers; in previous games those two end-zone picks weren’t happening.

It was a good thing the defense did get those turnovers and make those stops, as Starks lost two fumbles in the second half (after fumbling twice earlier without punishment).  On that issue, I was struck by some comments made by Higgins in The Post and Courier:

On the fumbles, Higgins said, “We knew the first time he stepped on campus that was going to be a challenge. We watched him as a freshman on the scout team and said, that will be a challenge. But until you actually get under fire, it takes a while to understand that.

This sounds a little like the Tiki Barber situation with the New York Giants, when he was alternating between big runs and big fumbles (sometimes on the same play).  Maybe the Bulldog staff should get Tom Coughlin on the phone…

The Citadel is going to have to live with some fumbling, it appears.  Other teams are going to make a concerted effort to try to strip Starks of the ball, which may lead to more fumbling, but which may also lead to bigger plays by Starks as players go for the ball rather than the tackle.  Starks isn’t going to go down just by being hit; he has to be wrapped up, and if other teams don’t realize this now they will realize it soon enough.

I think that with Starks at QB, Bulldog fans are going to have more than the usual number of “no no yes yes!” and “yes yes oh no” moments, at least in the near future.

As disappointing as the Bulldogs’ lost weekends at Elon and Cullowhee were — and those were VERY disappointing results —  it’s good to see the team (and coaches) get up off the canvas and come out fighting.  To do so against Furman makes it even better.  Now it’s time to focus on Samford, which shouldn’t be too difficult, given last year’s mauling.  It’s about time to re-buckle those chinstraps.

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