Review: Western Carolina

Western Carolina 24, The Citadel 13.

It was a dismal performance in just about every respect.  There are basically no positives that can be taken from this game.  None.

Blame will be placed on the anemic offense, and it’s certainly true there was no visible progress on that front in this game (and arguably some regression).  However, the defense was even more disappointing. particularly the secondary, which as a unit was terrible all day long.

The play that best summed up the game occurred on Western Carolina’s second possession of the contest.  The Catamounts faced a third-and-six on their own 24. Quarterback Brandon Pechloff, under some pressure, floated a pass that traveled almost 30 yards in the air, and I mean floated.  While the ball was in the air, it would have been possible to sing the national anthem in its entirety, including holding the “free” note as long as a diva could desire.

Despite the lack of sizzle on the pass, no Bulldog defender was able to make a play on the ball.  As a result Catamount wideout Josh Cockrell was able to make a 20-yard reception, cradling the ball as he fell backwards, with three Bulldogs within six yards of him (and a fourth rushing into the mix).

This happened a lot.  On the next WCU drive, the Bulldogs committed pass interference on consecutive plays, setting up a first-and-goal situation.  The Catamounts scored two plays later.  On both PIs the defender did not know the ball was headed in his direction, resulting in penalties when he made contact with the receiver (the second one was a close call, although I thought it was a correct one; a number of other people did not agree with me, however).

The Catamounts’ second TD came after a fumbled punt.  Pechloff’s pass to Jacoby Mitchell was underthrown and should have been intercepted or at least batted away, but the defender, while in good position, mistimed his jump.  Mitchell caught the ball and strolled into the end zone.

The fourth-quarter play that basically iced the game was another instance of a defensive back lacking ball awareness.  Pechloff floated a 30-yard pass that was badly underthrown (again), but the DB never saw it and the WCU receiver (Mitchell again) came back to the ball to make the catch at the Bulldog 5.  Western Carolina scored on the next play for an essentially insurmountable two-score lead.

Pechloff competed very well in this game, showing a lot of composure for a true freshman making his first career start.  However, he is slow afoot and his injury-riddled offensive line is not very good.  The Bulldogs’ defensive line probably should have sacked him more than once, although he did a good job getting rid of the ball.  In doing so, though, he threw several passes that would have been intercepted by a better defensive secondary.

As for the offense, the first half was abysmal.  There were five possessions, and they went like this:  3 yards and a punt; 8 yards and failed on 4th-and-1 (from the Bulldog 45 — I liked the decision to go for it, but not the play call); 33 yards, two first downs, and an 8-yard punt; 3 yards and a FG (this was after a WCU turnover); 42 yards, two first downs, and failed on 4th-and-10 (from the WCU 38).  If anything, it was worse than how it reads.

The offense struggled running the ball outside, a season-long problem, thanks mostly to the lack of good perimeter blocking.  No slotback had a rush longer than nine yards.  (The one good outside rush in the game, by Van Dyke Jones in the second quarter, was called back by an obvious, and pointless, holding penalty by a receiver.)

There was hope in the third quarter when a nice drive by the Bulldogs was finished by Terrell Dallas’ 45-yard touchdown, a play much like his 80-yard gallop in the PC game.  The Citadel then kicked a FG and was in a position to score again early in the fourth quarter when it faced a 4th-and-11 at the WCU 30.

Kevin Higgins elected to have Ryan Sellers attempt a 47-yard field goal.  Sellers had a good game on Saturday, stepping in for regular placekicker Sam Keeler (who was ill), but I thought attempting the FG in that situation was a mistake.  It’s a tough decision, but a field goal there still doesn’t give you the lead, and the odds of making a 47-yarder with your backup kicker probably aren’t that good.  On the other hand, it was 4th-and-11.

At any rate, Sellers narrowly missed the try, and then the defense just folded.  A missed tackle resulted in a 33-yard run, just about the only decent rush WCU had in the entire game.  That was immediately followed by Mitchell’s reception inside the 10. The Catamounts scored on the next play.  Four plays, touchdown, fans getting up and leaving.

It was a very frustrating game to watch.  Kevin Higgins was apparently frustrated as well.  I want to highlight one of Higgins’ quotes in Jeff Hartsell’s game story, though:

“In the first half, we just didn’t block like we needed to up front. They came out in a 4-3 defense, and we had been working on a (five-man front) all week, and we just didn’t make the adjustments up front and couldn’t get any first downs.”

It’s one thing to struggle on the first series of the game while trying to figure out what defense is being employed, but for an entire half?  That’s not good enough.  This has been a bit of a theme this year, with the Bulldogs allegedly being more of a “second quarter” team while spending the first quarter deciphering defenses.  The problem, of course, is that there are only a limited number of possessions in a game, especially for a triple option attack, and The Citadel can’t use one (or two) quarters as some sort of recon mission — it has to score (or at least possess the ball) early in the game, too.

I’ll have more on-the-field thoughts when I preview the UT-Chattanooga game, but for now I want to briefly discuss some off-field issues, notably attendance (or the lack thereof).

Larry Leckonby has a problem.  The attendance on Saturday (10,207) would have been embarrassing just a few short years ago, but now is almost old hat.  Leckonby finds himself in the position of presiding over the worst run of attendance at Johnson Hagood Stadium in at least four decades.

I’ve written about attendance before, and I understand there are multiple issues at play, but I am really surprised at the continued decline.  The easy answer is that The Citadel hasn’t had a good football program for a decade-plus, but there is more to it than that (although that’s a significant factor).

If The Citadel can’t stop the attendance downturn, that will undoubtedly have an impact on future scheduling.  In the upcoming years where The Citadel can schedule 12 games, perhaps the Bulldogs will wind up playing two FBS schools and not play an extra home game.  It may be that five home games will become the norm, regardless of whether the team plays 11 or 12 regular-season games.

On Saturday I had the opportunity to survey the club section for the first time during a game.  I have to say that, in general, the club setup is not meant for someone like me. During the game I am prone to glaring intently at the field, occasionally muttering to myself, and getting up and walking around if there is space available to do so.  The club section is a bit more relaxed, and that’s okay.

It’s a very nice setup.  It’s the kind of thing The Citadel is usually very good at managing, and so I wasn’t surprised at how neat it was.  It had TVs (watching Clemson commit six turnovers against Miami was sort of entertaining in itself), a bar (of course — this is The Citadel!), a buffet, seating…the works.  If you ever have a chance to go up there for a game, I would encourage you to do so.

I learned one thing on Saturday while in the club section:  sweet tea is a godsend during a college football game.  How did I not know this?

I do wonder if space in the club section might become more of an issue if game attendance (and presumably club seating attendance) was better.  Unfortunately, that’s a potential problem Larry Leckonby and Jerry Baker have yet to encounter.

I’ll close this by including some pictures I took during the game, mostly of the offense.  Some of these are of the same play (as it is developing).  If you’re wondering why I don’t have an entire play photographed, it’s because I’m a terrible photographer with a cheap camera.  The first three pictures of the offense are of the beginning of Terrell Dallas’ touchdown run.

The first photo, though, is a shot of the corps of cadets.  I took this picture because I want interested observers who don’t get to go to the games to see just how many cadets are actually in the stands during a game.  This is an issue I would really like to see addressed by the administration.  It was even more noticeable during last year’s Homecoming game.

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