2011 Football, Game 3: The Citadel vs. Elon

The Citadel at Elon, to be played at Rhodes Stadium, with kickoff at 1:30 pm ET on Saturday, September 24.  The game will not be televised.  There will also be a webcast on Bulldog Insider (subscription service, and perhaps audio-only), and the game can be heard on radio via The Citadel Sports Network, with “Voice of the Bulldogs” Danny Reed calling the action.

A successful athletics program contributes to a sense of community and institutional pride, is of great interest to students and alumni, and contributes greatly to national visibility.

The above sentence is from Elon’s website; not from its athletics site, but an offshoot from its primary educational URL.  It’s part of the “Elon Commitment“,  which is Elon’s strategic plan for the next ten years — or really eight, as it was formulated in 2009.

Elon is big on long-range goals, and is also big on accomplishing those goals.  As I wrote two years ago, the school has had an amazing transformation over the past four decades.  The money that has been put into Elon is remarkable; it is surely one of the great fundraising success stories in higher education.  The administration at Elon also deserves credit for its master plan to spend that money, a plan helped considerably by a very sensible land purchase made in the early 1970s.

School president Leo Lambert noted two years ago that the Elon Commitment would require about $500 million to come to complete fruition, which is a very ambitious target, but it’s hard to bet against Elon not getting there given what has already been accomplished.

In 2001, Elon opened its new football facility, Rhodes Stadium (named in part for trustee Dusty Rhodes; I guess it’s a rule that if your last name is Rhodes, your nickname has to be “Dusty”).  Earlier this year, the Phoenix put the finishing touches on Alumni Field House, a structure that includes all the ancillary football necessities (including a “hydrotherapy area”; sounds impressive, but for all I know it’s just a shower stall).  Oh, and since this is 2011:

Alumni Field House is pursuing Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification, which is the nationally recognized benchmark for the design, construction and operation of high performance green buildings…The automatic irrigation system will be part of the campus wide system, which is supplied with reclaimed stormwater collected on campus.

There is an interactive touch screen…[with] access to the campus wide electricity monitoring system, which provides real-time electricity consumption information for over 50 campus buildings and will include the Alumni Field House.

You get the idea.  Elon has money, is spending that money, plans on raising more money, and will spend that money too.  One other thing, though.  From one of the above links:

Elon’s athletic peers are fine universities such as William and Mary, Richmond, Furman and Davidson, schools that believe strongly in the student-athlete ideal and understand that the intercollegiate athletic experience is wonderful preparation for leadership in life.

I have to point out that Elon’s “athletic peers” include a school that doesn’t play scholarship football (Davidson), a school that competes in the Atlantic 10 in all sports save football and women’s golf (Richmond), and a public school with quite a few more varsity sports than Elon (William and Mary).  I am not completely sure what Elon’s ultimate goal is for its athletics program, other than fully funding athletics scholarships in all sports, a benchmark expressly stated by the school.

I was listening to the SoCon media teleconference as Jason Swepson, Elon’s new head coach, started talking about the upcoming game.  Swepson spent the last four seasons at North Carolina State under Tom O’Brien, but prior to that he had been on O’Brien’s staff at Boston College, which is Swepson’s alma mater.  Swepson is a Massachusetts native, and four years in the south haven’t made a dent in his accent.

A question about defending the triple option was posed to him by Burlington Times News sportswriter Adam Smith.  Swepson noted that Elon had allocated ten minutes to defending the option for all of its preseason practices, and had also “tweaked” its weekly in-season practice schedule for this week to be better prepared for it. Swepson also mentioned that Phoenix defensive coordinator Ed Pinkham had experience with defending the triple option against Army and Navy while working at Colgate and Rutgers (Pinkham spent five years on staff total in New Brunswick, including serving as the co-DC for the last two seasons).

That got me thinking.  What kind of defense is Pinkham likely to employ against The Citadel?  Could he take a page from his days at Rutgers?

Rutgers beat Army in both 2009 and 2010, both triple option years for the Black Knights; Rutgers won easily, 27-10, in 2009, holding the Cadets to 213 total yards.  In the second meeting, Army outgained Rutgers in yardage by over 150 yards (404-250) but lost 23-20 in OT, thanks in part to two lost fumbles (in a game marred by Eric Legrand’s injury).

The Scarlet Knights last played Navy in 2007 and 2008.  Rutgers beat the Midshipmen 41-24 in the first meeting, which won’t go down as one of Rutgers’ best moments. Navy rushed for 254 yards but passed for only 35, and had three of those throws intercepted.  In 2008, however, the Middies amassed 289 yards rushing, a further 89 passing (including a TD), and did not turn the ball over, leading to a 23-21 Navy win.

I decided to consult The Birddog, who as I have mentioned before is the world’s leading Navy football blogger and a noted devotee of the triple option.  What kind of scheme did Rutgers run against Navy’s attack?

Via tweet, he replied that “Main takeaway from Rutgers is that they like playing cover 3 w/FS taking the pitch.”

Now, I don’t understand all the “x and o” stuff about the triple option, which is one of the few things I have in common with Craig James, but from what I gather, the free safety taking the pitch man might mean that occasionally running a play more to the middle of the field could be worthwhile.  Something like, say, the midline option.

That link to The Birddog’s site is a good primer on the midline, and includes two video examples of Navy running the midline against Rutgers.  Video from the same game is also on his review of that (2008) contest:  Link

Another team that ran a similar defensive scheme was Georgia, against Georgia Tech in 2009.  It didn’t work real well.  One other thing about this particular defensive scheme is that one way to combat it is the ol’ play-action pass.  I am guessing that would be a call Kevin Higgins would be more than willing to make.

Now, I don’t know if Elon is going to run a similar defensive alignment against The Citadel.  The Phoenix might do something completely different, making all the above information meaningless.  On the other hand, I think the midline option is going to be something to watch as far as the Bulldogs’ offense is concerned anyway, whether against Elon or any other opponent.  One reason might be a certain coach now at The Citadel.  From that midline post:

Craig Candeto used to call the QB-FB midline his favorite play because he only had one read, and the DT tends to take the fullback most of the time.

Gee, I wonder what Craig Candeto is doing now.  Might he be mentoring a young quarterback?  Hmm…

Oh, one other thing:  The Birddog told me that Kansas ran a similar defensive look against Georgia Tech last week, as did Delaware against Navy three weeks ago. Combined rushing yardage for the Jackets and Midshipmen in those two games: 995.

As there can only be one Phoenix at any time, please refer to the Phoenix in the singular.

– Elon football game notes

Elon is 2-1 on the season, with victories over Division II Concord (42-10) and a new member of the MEAC, North Carolina Central (23-22).  The Phoenix lost its season opener 45-14 to Vanderbilt.

I don’t think the games against Concord and Vandy were too surprising (although it should be noted that the Phoenix actually had more total yards than the Commodores).  The contest with North Carolina Central shouldn’t have been, either. Elon, heavily favored, outgained its opponent 525-219 and had almost 15 more minutes of possession.  The Phoenix kept the Eagles in the game, though, by committing five turnovers; one of Elon’s three interceptions was returned 75 yards for a touchdown.

North Carolina Central had a chance to win the game late, but a field goal attempt went awry and Elon hung on for the victory.

I wish Elon had saved some of those turnovers for this week’s game…

Phoenix quarterback Thomas Wilson played, after some concern over whether he would be able to do so, and threw for 416 yards (albeit with those three picks).  This is Wilson’s first season as the starter, following the seemingly never-ending career of Scott Riddle.  Wilson did have one previous start at Elon, though — the game last year against The Citadel.

Riddle was unable to play in that game due to injury, but Wilson more than held his own, leading a methodical attack.  He made no big mistakes and was particularly effective on third down (9-13) and in the “red zone” (Elon scored a TD on each of its four trips inside the 20; two of those TDs were one-yard rushes by Wilson).

Wilson’s primary target is wide receiver Aaron Mellette.  Mellette caught 16 passes last week, for 237 yards and a touchdown.  The Eagles had no answers for him, but they shouldn’t feel too badly about that, as Mellette posed tough questions for teams all last season (among other highlights, he had 18 receptions against Richmond).

Mellette was named first-team all-SoCon after last season.  He gets compared a lot to former Elon star Terrell Hudgins, which could be a bit unfair (Hudgins, a former high school quarterback, may have been a better athlete), but there’s no doubt he’s a threat on any play and must be accounted for by the Bulldogs at all times.  In last year’s game, Mellette was held to just three catches, one of the few positives for the Bulldogs’ D.

Elon is averaging 130 yards per game rushing, but that number is inflated by a 199-yard performance against Concord.  The Phoenix rushing attack may have taken a hit with an injury to 6’4″, 311-lb. senior right guard Rodney Austin, who broke his foot last week and will be out for at least two months.  Austin was a preseason second-team all-SoCon selection.

The Phoenix is one for three in field goal attempts this season, after only making eight of fifteen last year.  However, placekicker Adam Shreiner was a perfect 45-45 in PATs last year and that streak has continued this season (10-10).

On defense, players to watch for Elon include middle linebacker Joshua Jones, a preseason second-team all-SoCon pick who leads the Phoenix in tackles, and free safety Blake Thompson, who had eleven tackles last year against The Citadel.  As noted above, Thompson may be a key man as Elon battles against Triple O’Higgins. Jones and Thompson are responsible for over one-quarter of the Phoenix’s tackles for loss.

Elon’s defensive line is not particularly large, with three of the starters weighing less than 250 lbs., but noseguard Tony Thompson checks in at 270 lbs. and already has two sacks this season.  A backup of interest is David Wood, who played baseball for Elon the last two seasons and is now a reserve defensive back on the football team (Wood is also a kick and punt returner).

Fashion alert:  The Citadel’s game notes this week indicate the Bulldogs will wear white jerseys and white pants at Elon.

I don’t think there are any secrets as to what The Citadel needs to do this week. Avoiding turnovers, as always, is a must.  So far this year the Bulldogs have been okay in that respect, though there are still too many fumbles.

When a big play is out there for the offense, it must take full advantage.  That didn’t happen against Furman, and the Bulldogs paid for it.

The defense needs to get off the field on third down, something it repeatedly failed to do against Elon last season.  The D also needs to force some turnovers and sack the quarterback a time or two, or six.  Jeremy Buncum has three tackles for loss this season, leading the team.  The Citadel needs more of those types of plays.

Based on early reports, there may be a very good crowd at Rhodes Stadium on Saturday, which is good (nothing worse than a dead atmosphere, at home or on the road).  The last time The Citadel played at Elon, the Bulldogs lost 43-7 in a miserable performance, one of a number of less-than-stellar road outings in recent years.  The Citadel has lost 15 of its last 17 road contests, although it is riding a one-game winning streak away from Johnson Hagood Stadium (last season’s finale at Samford).

It would be nice to add to the road winning streak on Saturday.

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