2011 Football Game 8: The Citadel vs. VMI

The Citadel vs. VMI, also known as “The Military Classic of the South”, to be played at historic Johnson Hagood Stadium, with kickoff at 1:00 pm ET on Saturday, October 29.  The game will not be televised. There will be a webcast on Bulldog Insider (subscription service), and the game can be heard on radio via The Citadel Sports Network, with “Voice of the Bulldogs” Danny Reed calling the action alongside analyst Walt Nadzak.  The two teams will battle for the coveted Silver Shako, universally regarded as the greatest trophy in all of sports.

I’ve actually written multiple posts on The Citadel’s football team this week. It’s the first time in a while I’ve done that. I reviewed the Western Carolina game, and also threw in my two cents on where the corps of cadets should be placed at Johnson Hagood Stadium.

Now it’s time for the long-awaited resumption of the Cadets vs. Keydets clash. I’m looking forward to this matchup, in part because the Bulldogs have a good chance of winning, but perhaps more so because I think it’s a shame the rivalry had to take a break in the first place. Be forewarned; I’m going to spend most of this post writing about VMI.

The fact the matchup has not taken place since 2007 is a direct result of VMI leaving the Southern Conference following the 2002 football season, which affected the ability of both schools to schedule the game. VMI had been a member of the league since 1924, so we’re not talking about a TCU situation here. Why did the school move to the Big South?

From a Jeff Hartsell article in The Post and Courier:

When VMI left the SoCon after the 2002 season, school officials claimed scheduling flexibility as one reason for the move. The Keydets were locked into eight league games in the SoCon; at the time, the Big South played only four conference games (it’s up to six games and seven teams now, including Stony Brook, which is in New York).

But there’s no doubt football futility played a role in the decision. In the six seasons before their departure, the Keydets were 4-43 in the SoCon, including three 0-8 records and two 1-7 marks, for a winning percentage of .085.

Let’s dig into this a little deeper. First, an aside: you know VMI fans (not to mention the school administration) wince when they see a headline like that one (“Nine years after VMI retreated from SoCon, Bulldogs hold fast”). Ouch.

The Keydets had occasionally slogged through tough stretches in their history on the gridiron prior to their modern-day struggles. For example, from 1968-1971 VMI compiled a cumulative record of 3-39 (in the 1969 season, the average score of a VMI game was Opposition 41, Keydets 8). The first three of those seasons came under the tutelage of Vito Ragazzo. He was replaced in 1971 by Bob Thalman, who gradually rebuilt the program after first enduring a 1-10 campaign in 1971.

Thalman was still the coach in 1981, when the Keydets went 6-3-1. For those of you reading this who don’t know, that is the last time VMI had a winning season in football. That’s right. This year the Keydets (currently 1-6) will suffer their 30th consecutive non-winning campaign. VMI has had two .500 seasons in that span, going 6-6 in 2002 and 2003 under Cal McCombs, a graduate of The Citadel.

McCombs followed up those two years (the last season in the SoCon and the first in the Big South, respectively) by going 0-11 in 2004. After a 3-8 season in 2005, he was done as the VMI coach.

That 0-11 season in 2004 is one of two winless campaigns at the Institute since 1981. Ted Cain’s 1997 squad also went 0-11. Cain was the coach at VMI for two seasons, winning one solitary game (against Lenoir-Rhyne).

With the exception of current coach Sparky Woods, every coach at VMI since 1981 has suffered through at least one winless or one-win season. Thalman was 1-9 in his final season in charge (1984). Eddie Williamson had a 1-10 ledger in 1987. Jim Schuck (a former Army assistant who was hoped to be VMI’s version of his contemporary Charlie Taaffe) went 1-10 in his final season, 1993. His replacement, Bill Stewart (later to win a BCS bowl game at West Virginia) would field a 1-10 squad the following year.

After Cain’s two seasons (the final game of the 1998 campaign was coached by AD Donny White), McCombs would coach VMI for six years, with two 1-10 seasons to go along with that 0-11 finish in 2004. Jim Reid, who had previously been the head coach at Massachusetts and Richmond,  followed McCombs, posting records of 1-10 and 2-9 before leaving to go to the Miami Dolphins (shades of John Zernhelt). He is now the defensive coordinator at Virginia.

Speaking of Donny White, who coached that one game in 1998, he is still the director of athletics at VMI. In the Hartsell article, he had this to say about scheduling:

Fewer league games have helped VMI rekindle rivalries with teams in Virginia like Richmond and William & Mary, but it hasn’t done much for the bottom line. Overall, VMI has a 21-69 record since leaving the SoCon, the highwater mark a 6-6 record in 2003.

“To be fair, I haven’t done a good job of taking advantage of that flexibility,” White said. “With more flexibility, you try to schedule more appropriately for your team, so our non-conference record should have improved. But I haven’t done a good job with that.”

Well, he probably hasn’t. On the other hand, there is a reason he is still the AD at VMI despite the football team’s struggles. It seems clear that White, despite his comments, has been hamstrung a bit in his efforts to make the schedule easier.

The Big South, as mentioned in the article, now has seven teams, so that is six league games for VMI per season. In non-league play, VMI has played William & Mary every season since World War II save one (2009). The Keydets have not beaten the Tribe since 1985, and few of the contests in recent years have been close. Richmond has been an almost yearly opponent as well, but since joining the Big South VMI is 0-9 against the Spiders, allowing on average almost 40 points per contest.

Richmond and William & Mary are traditional rivals for the Keydets (they in fact are the two schools VMI has played most often in its history), but the fact is that right now both of them are on a tier well above VMI in terms of on-field competitiveness. Between playing both of them almost every year, along with a “money” game or two (VMI played both Virginia and Army last season), it makes it hard to schedule “gimme” victories for the squad.

This year VMI’s only game against an FBS team is Akron. I can’t imagine the Keydets got a large check for that one (though I have read that check may have been at least as big, if not bigger, than one for playing Army would have been).

In a way, it is easy to see what VMI’s administration was thinking when it elected to leave the SoCon. Richmond and William & Mary had already left the league. There were some schools still in the conference with which VMI could identify (like The Citadel and Furman), but there were other institutions with which VMI had no shared history, larger state schools that the Keydets seemingly were never going to be able to successfully compete against on the field. Georgia Southern entered the SoCon in 1993. The Eagles and Keydets met ten times. GSU won all ten games by an average score of 47-6.

By the late 1990s it seemed to be getting worse for VMI, which was losing badly every year to the likes of GSU, Appalachian State, and Chattanooga. I wouldn’t be surprised if a particular stretch in 1999 may have cast the die when it came to leaving the league. VMI was 1-10 that season, winless in the league. Starting in late September, this is how things went for the Institute: Furman leveled the Keydets 58-0. The following week, Georgia Southern traveled to Lexington and blasted VMI 62-0. The week after that, Wofford crushed the Keydets 55-10. Then Chattanooga shut out VMI 27-0.

After a non-league game against William & Mary, VMI would lose 40-2 to Western Carolina and 34-7 to App State. Even the near-miss that was the season finale (a 7-6 loss to The Citadel) wouldn’t have come close to easing the pain of that season, or perhaps the sense that VMI could no longer compete in the Southern Conference.

The problem, of course, is that recruiting to play in the Big South is not the same as recruiting for the SoCon, something the administration at VMI may not have fully realized. It may be that the VMI brass thought the school would continue recruiting the same type of athlete regardless of what league VMI called home, but that’s not the way it works.

In addition, several teams in the Big South have started to show major aspirations when it comes to football, and VMI is again faced with the problem of competing against schools with different standards (because they have different missions) and more resources. VMI is 2-7 against Coastal Carolina since joining the Big South, and 1-8 versus Liberty since joining the conference. It’s likely that competing against those schools will continue to be an uphill climb for the Keydets.

VMI is also winless against Stony Brook since the Seawolves joined the league for football. I’m guessing that most VMI alums don’t know anything about Stony Brook except that it beat their alma mater 42-14 last week.

I think the long losing streak has surely cost VMI victories in individual seasons, as there is no reservoir of winning built up in the program. What the folks in Lexington need to do, more than anything, is come up with a winning season to get the proverbial monkey off their back. As such, VMI should schedule accordingly. At least three “gimme” or “near gimme” games should be scheduled, preferably early in the season in order to build confidence.

Then, with hard work and a little luck, three victories in league play would give VMI that 6-5 record and end the skid. In other words, play Lock Haven and Chowan and schools like that on a regular basis in non-conference games.

The Citadel has suffered because of a long losing run of its own, only broken by the 7-4 season in 2007. When it comes to breaking a run of losing that has lasted for a generation and a half, VMI’s difficulties are exponentially greater.

I was at the 2002 contest referenced in Jeff Hartsell’s story. It was easily the most miserable I have been at a football game, and that had nothing to do with the outcome. That game was the first of two matchups between VMI and The Citadel played in Charlotte at ancient Memorial Stadium, an interesting idea for promoting the series that definitely did not work out.

The problem was that the weather was beyond awful that day, and the field at the stadium was simply not up to par, to put it mildly. The end result was that the two teams played in a sea of mud while the supporters who actually made it to the stadium were being absolutely pelted by near-freezing rain. It was just a mess.

I’ve still got my program from that game. It is, shall we say, weatherbeaten. For the record, the 2002 game was technically a VMI home game, so the program is actually “Keydet Gameday” with VMI defensive back DeAngello Plather on the cover. It’s probably not a collector’s item.

The weather was much better for the 1980 contest at Johnson Hagood Stadium, a tour de force by Stump Mitchell. I still remember a long touchdown run in which several different VMI players were left with pieces of his jersey (they wore tearaways back then) while Mitchell galloped down the sideline, shoulder pads rhythmically bouncing as he ran.

VMI and The Citadel will be meeting later in the season over the next few years. Next year’s game in Lexington is tentatively scheduled for November 10. The game in 2013 is slated to be played November 16.

VMI will also play Navy in 2012.

Sparky Woods is the coach at VMI. It’s his fourth season in Lexington. When he was hired I thought it was a quality move for VMI, and I still do. He’s a good coach. People sometimes forget that he did a nice job at Appalachian State, which is what led to him getting the South Carolina job.

He got the gig with the Gamecocks after Joe Morrison died. I remember when Woods was first formally introduced to a South Carolina crowd; it was at the 1989 basketball game between The Citadel and South Carolina, at Frank McGuire Arena. Gamecock officials literally rolled a red carpet (it may have been garnet) to center court and led him out for a quick wave-and-leave moment. The crowd stood and gave him a standing ovation.

Of course, that night the Bulldogs beat the Gamecocks on the hardwood for the first time since 1943. Perhaps it was an omen for his worst moment as the football coach at South Carolina, the 38-35 loss to The Citadel in 1990…

This is going to be yet another game in which neither The Citadel nor its opponent is known for committing penalties. The Bulldogs have the fewest penalties (and penalty yardage) in FCS football. VMI is tied for seventh in fewest penalty yards. Amazingly, the Keydets have played four teams in the top six in this category — The Citadel, Richmond, William & Mary, and Charleston Southern (CSU being the lone victory on VMI’s schedule to date).

VMI has struggled on offense all season. It ranks very low in the FCS in several offensive categories, including total offense (112th), pass efficiency (113th), and scoring offense (115th).

Starting quarterback Eric Kordenbreck has thrown four touchdown passes while being intercepted seven times. He has only completed 48% of his passes. His backup, Adam Morgan, has posted good numbers in limited duty. I wouldn’t be surprised if he played against The Citadel.

VMI is only averaging 3.4 yards per rushing attempt. Chaz Jones is a redshirt senior who has received the bulk of the carries for the Keydets. He has seven rushing touchdowns. Jones also has thirteen pass receptions.

Another redshirt senior, Tracy Hairston, is VMI’s primary receiving threat, leading the team in receptions. He is also the Keydets’ regular kick returner.

Defensively, the Keydets are allowing slightly over 30 points per game, although that is partly a result of the problems on offense (including a time of possession differential of over five minutes versus its opponents). The one area VMI is weakest on defense, pass efficiency, is not exactly a strength for The Citadel. VMI has only intercepted one pass all season, which doesn’t help its turnover margin (-8).

Opponents are averaging a shade over 175 yards per game on the ground against the Keydets. The goal of Triple O’Higgins for the game on Saturday should be to try to double that total, at the very least.

VMI’s two top defensive players are linebacker A.J. Gross and strong safety Byron Allen, both of whom were pre-season all-league picks in the Big South. Unfortunately for the Keydets, promising defensive back Demetrius Phillips left school earlier this week.

VMI’s numbers in the punt game are not good, a major issue for a team as offensively challenged as the Keydets. VMI is not winning the battle of field position in most of its games. The Keydets have had three punts blocked this season. I bet Domonic Jones is interested in that statistic.

Last week, I called the Western Carolina game a “must-win” game for the Bulldogs, and they won it. This Saturday’s game against VMI is also a “must-win”, and not just because it’s a rivalry game.

It’s a game The Citadel is expected to win. There really aren’t a whole lot of games like that on the Bulldogs’ schedule in any given year, and when there are, the team must take full advantage.

Having said that, I don’t think it’s going to be easy. VMI is not a good team, but it’s a team that is going to play hard throughout. It will match The Citadel in that respect in a way that few other squads do.

Also, a win over The Citadel would make VMI’s season. The Bulldogs in the past have struggled with some very poor VMI teams; it’s important that The Citadel does exactly what it did last week in Cullowhee, namely start strong and not let up. The longer VMI stays in the game, the more the Keydets will start to believe they can win it.

Bobby Ross will be at Johnson Hagood on Saturday, having the honors at the pregame coin toss. I think that’s really cool.

I’ll be in the stadium too. I want to see the coveted Silver Shako in person again, and I want to see The Citadel retain the precious trophy for another year. It’s important.

One Response

  1. I feel I’ve just been to a football history seminar–I’m impressed.

    I’ve been tracking VMI all season, trying to understand why Sparky Woods has insisted on playing Eric Kordenbrock while he has Adam Morgan on the bench. Every time Morgan has been allowed into a game he has made exciting things happen–only to be returned to the bench. As the author of the “football history at VMI” has noted, “Starting quarterback Eric Kordenbreck has thrown four touchdown passes while being intercepted seven times [not to mention several sacks]. He has only completed 48% of his passes. His backup, Adam Morgan, has posted good numbers in limited duty. I wouldn’t be surprised if he played against The Citadel.” If only the historian were a better seer, VMI’s football history might have been different this season.

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