2011 Football Game 9: The Citadel vs. Georgia Southern

The Citadel at Georgia Southern, to be played at Paulson Stadium, with kickoff at 2:00 pm ET on Saturday, November 5.  The game will not be televised. 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.   Bulldog Insider will also provide free audio; the only video available for this game is being provided by Georgia Southern as part of a subscription service.

I’ve already written about The Citadel’s victory over VMI. There isn’t much to add to that, except I did want to briefly mention VMI’s fans.  The Keydets brought more supporters to Johnson Hagood Stadium than Wofford did, and weren’t too far behind Furman in the “travel” category. That’s very impressive, given that A) it’s a long trip, and B) VMI hasn’t had a winning season in 30 years.  Full credit to VMI’s fans, a group that surely deserves better results on the gridiron.

Now the Bulldogs face what could be their biggest challenge of the season to date, a road game against Georgia Southern, which until last week was unbeaten and ranked #1 in the country in both FCS polls. The Eagles saw their perfect season go by the boards in a 24-17 loss in Boone to Appalachian State, and are likely to be a rather surly bunch right now, just in time for Homecoming in Statesboro. Beautiful Eagle Creek may seem a little less beautiful right now.

One thing Georgia Southern can’t really afford to do at this point in the season is lose to The Citadel, because it would put the Eagles in a rather difficult position. Right now GSU is 7-1 with three games remaining. After hosting the Bulldogs, Georgia Southern finishes the regular season with two road games. One of those is in Spartanburg against fellow SoCon title contender Wofford, while the finale is a matchup with BCS title contender Alabama.

If Georgia Southern were to lose all three games, it would finish at 7-4, and would have a borderline case for a postseason bid. The record wouldn’t be great, and GSU would have finished the campaign with four straight defeats. Even more problematic would be the fact that the Eagles would have only six victories against Division I teams, as one of GSU’s wins came against Division II Tusculum.

Technically, an FCS playoff at-large team doesn’t need seven D-1 wins, but historically it has been a de facto rule that at-large candidates should have at least seven such victories. (That may change if there is more postseason expansion.)

GSU definitely needs to win one of its next two games to ensure a playoff bid, and probably needs to win both to garner a national seed.

Although the odds of Georgia Southern getting left out of the FCS postseason are low, it’s important not to overlook the problem of scheduling both a “money” game and a matchup against a non-D1 squad. While a team that closes a season with four straight losses isn’t likely to get an at-large berth anyway, what if Georgia Southern had lost earlier in the season (say, to Chattanooga, a one-point victory for the Eagles), and then finished the year with a win over The Citadel but a tough loss at Wofford, and then the expected defeat to the Crimson Tide?

A SoCon team with 7 wins and a loss to Alabama would normally be at worst a marginal at-large contender, but GSU would only have six D-1 victories and would presumably be out of the running.

That’s why it is better, when looking for a no-return home game, that ADs at schools with playoff aspirations try to schedule D-1 schools rather than D-2 or NAIA teams. It’s not that easy to find FCS schools willing to make a one-way trip, at least not cheaply, but it’s something that needs to be done. Of course, there is the additional risk that the school in question may be good enough to actually win the game.

For The Citadel, Jacksonville was an excellent season-opening opponent in this respect. Presbyterian would also be a good candidate, and of course there is a long tradition of games between the Bulldogs and the Blue Hose. Newberry, on the other hand, is probably not an option, since it is still D-2.

For some fans of the Eagles, the playoffs aren’t enough. There is still a significant group of Georgia Southern supporters who believe that it is time for GSU to make the move to the land of FBS. The school published a study on the issue two years ago. At the time I wrote about whether GSU should make the leap, the latest round of conference-jumping wasn’t even on the horizon, much less a staple of hourly news reports.

I think it is even more of a risk to move to FBS now than it was two years ago, because there is major uncertainty about what that division will become in the next few years. Georgia Southern (and Appalachian State) supporters hoping to become part of the FBS club are dreaming of a chance to join a league like the Sun Belt or, in a best-case scenario, Conference USA.

Even if that were to happen, though, in the current climate there is a possibility it would amount to jumping on a treadmill. If the much-theorized breakaway by the major programs to form super-conferences comes to pass, Sun Belt and C-USA schools are not likely to be part of the chosen few. They are more likely to wind up in a larger FCS.

The Citadel has won two straight games, reason for optimism in the continuing story that is Triple O’Higgins. However, I think there is still reason to be cautious. While I’m not one to complain about any victory, Western Carolina and VMI are not exactly the Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers when it comes to football prowess. While the Bulldog D has generally been excellent this season, The Citadel’s triple option attack is still very much a work in progress.

That isn’t to say that strides haven’t been made, because they have. It’s just that the Bulldogs haven’t really had that “eureka” moment, or game, at least not yet. It may be that it won’t happen this season.

Was there such a defining game in 1988, the second year of Charlie Taaffe’s wishbone attack? Was there a specific game when everyone realized that the Bulldogs were no longer learning how to run the offense, but were instead refining it?

Well, I’m not sure. Looking back at the seven-game winning streak in 1988, there wasn’t a true breakout game in terms of rushing yardage. It was more of a gradual increase, from 290 yards rushing (Navy) to 322 (Western Carolina), then a blip downwards (187 vs. Chattanooga), then the two games started by Tommy Burriss (278 yards rushing against Boston University and 301 vs. East Tennessee State).

Tangent: as it happens, the two games Burriss started in 1988 both came against schools that in the next few years would drop their respective football programs. I don’t think this can be blamed on Burriss, however.

The contest against ETSU could qualify as the game that truly established the offense as a force, as in addition to the rushing yardage the Bulldogs threw for 199 yards, with the 500 yards of total offense being the most in a game for the cadets since 1980. The Citadel scored 48 points against ETSU (31 in the second quarter).

The game against the Buccaneers was the eighth of the 1988 campaign. In the ninth game, Gene Brown would return from injury and lead the Bulldogs to one of their more celebrated victories, a 20-3 Homecoming triumph over #1 Marshall.

It would be nice to have a similar result in the ninth game of this season…

It won’t be easy, though, as the Eagles rank first in the SoCon in scoring defense and rush defense. One big reason why is Georgia Southern nosetackle Brent Russell, who Kevin Higgins called “the best defensive lineman in the country at our level.” It’s hard to argue the point. In last week’s loss to Appalachian State, the redshirt junior registered a career-high ten tackles.

One of the more notable performances in Russell’s career came last season against Navy, when he completely dominated the line of scrimmage, a major reason why Navy was held to 193 total yards (109 rushing). The Midshipmen managed to win the game despite Russell’s efforts, 13-7.

I found it interesting that in his weekly SoCon teleconference, GSU coach Jeff Monken was quick to praise Mike Sellers, the Bulldogs’ sophomore center. When The Citadel’s offense faces Georgia Southern’s defense, the critical matchup could be between the two players who line up closest to the ball.

Incidentally (or maybe not so incidentally), Georgia Southern’s defense has forced a punt on their opponents’ opening possession six times. Presbyterian’s opening drive against the Eagles resulted in a field goal attempt that was blocked. The only time the opposition scored on its initial possession against Georgia Southern was last week, when Appalachian State’s first drive resulted in a touchdown. Obviously, that’s also the only game GSU has lost.

Jaybo Shaw, GSU’s quarterback, was injured early in the contest last season at Johnson Hagood Stadium, so (presuming he stays healthy) this will be the first time The Citadel has seen him in extended game action. The Bulldogs will get their fill of quarterbacks named Shaw, however, as they will face Jaybo’s brother Connor in the game at South Carolina. Two Shaws in three weeks is probably a record.

Shaw’s passing numbers are reasonably solid, if modest by comparison to “normal” offenses. He has completed 54% of his throws for five touchdowns, against two interceptions. More importantly, he is averaging 11.2 yards per attempt, as the Eagles are third nationally (second in the SoCon) in pass efficiency. Shaw has rushed for 261 yards and seven touchdowns.

He has distributed the ball well in GSU’s triple option attack, with a bevy of running backs featuring for the Eagles. Robert Brown, the starting B-back, is the leading ground-gainer on the season for GSU. Included in his totals are 178 yards versus Chattanooga, 140 yards against Samford, and 116 yards versus Elon. He is averaging nearly seven yards per carry.

Georgia Southern’s offensive line has included the same five starters in every game except for last week’s contest, with the two-deep released by the school indicating the standard five-man group will return for the game against The Citadel. Three of the five are seniors.

GSU leads the nation in scoring offense (41.1 points per game) and is second in rushing offense.

The Eagles are also dangerous on special teams. Laron Scott averages 35. 5 yards per kick return, tops in FCS. As for punt returner Darreion Robinson, statistics don’t tell the whole story. This effort against Appalachian State does: Link

Saturday’s game against Georgia Southern will be a challenge, but that’s all right. The players won’t be dreading the trip to Statesboro; rather, they will be relishing it. It’s an opportunity to see how far the Bulldogs have come, and how far they still need to go.

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