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 soccerstyle 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.

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