2012 Football, Game 2: The Citadel vs. Georgia Southern

The Citadel vs. Georgia Southern, to be played at historic Johnson Hagood Stadium, with kickoff at 6:00 pm ET on Saturday, September 8.  The game will not be televised, although it will be webcast on Bulldog Insider (subscription service) and can be heard on radio via the twelve affiliates of The Citadel Sports Network. Danny Reed (the “Voice of the Bulldogs”) will call the action alongside analyst Josh Baker, with Lee Glaze roaming the sidelines and Walt Nadzak providing pre-game, halftime, and post-game commentary. 

Links of interest:

The Citadel game notes                   Box score from The Citadel’s game last week

Georgia Southern game notes        Box score from GSU’s game last week

SoCon weekly release

I want to start by talking about one of my favorite topics, attendance.

A crowd of 14,264 attended the game against Charleston Southern. Even with the ticket promotions and the postgame fireworks, I was pleasantly surprised with that total. As I arrived, I could see that there were a lot of people in the area around the stadium, even if a significant portion of them were just there for the tailgating.

It was the largest crowd for a game at Johnson Hagood Stadium since 2009, and the largest crowd for a home opener since 2006.

Charleston Southern actually brought a decent number of fans, a departure from previous seasons. More power to them. Georgia Southern will bring considerably more this week, so an opportunity for a big crowd is there.

This will be only the second time the two schools have met on the gridiron in the month of September. The Citadel played Georgia Southern on September 11, 1993, in Statesboro.

That is something to keep in mind when looking at attendance figures at Johnson Hagood Stadium for previous contests against the Eagles. Somewhat surprisingly, only twice has a game at JHS against Georgia Southern drawn crowds larger than the one last Saturday against CSU. However, all of those games came later in the season.

Attendance at Johnson Hagood Stadium when Georgia Southern is the opponent:

1994 — 18,559
1996 — 9,427
1998 — 14,222
2000 — 12,391
2002 — 16,427
2004 — 12,472
2006 — 12,129
2008 — 11,190
2010 — 10,385

I think there is a good chance that attendance will get a sizable bump for this matchup. It helps that both Clemson and South Carolina are playing earlier in the day.

That makes it all the more important for the Bulldogs to play well against the Eagles, because I believe that attendance for the remaining home games may be affected by The Citadel’s “momentum”. If a large crowd sees a good game, some of those people will come back for more. The bandwagon will start to roll again.

Interestingly, The Citadel’s potential attendance surge would be going against the national tide, at least if early-season FBS crowds are any indication:

There was exactly one announced capacity crowd in eight Southeastern Conference home openers. Before the Labor Day Georgia Tech-Virginia Tech game, six out of seven Atlantic Coast Conference schools had smaller crowds than their openers last year – some of them much smaller. Attendance was down at six out of eight Big 12 home openers from 2011. Five out of eight Pac-12 schools had smaller crowds as well, and Oregon’s 13-year sellout streak was in jeopardy until game day.

The Citadel’s attendance against Charleston Southern (14,264) was greater than the average attendance for the four MAC games played last week (13,928).

Can The Citadel beat Georgia Southern? Of course. What are the Bulldogs’ chances? Probably not very good, if history is a guide.

One of the great games in the history of Johnson Hagood Stadium was The Citadel’s 20-3 upset of top-ranked Marshall in 1988. The Bulldogs would also beat a top-10 opponent at JHS in 1991 when they edged #7 Furman 10-6 in a classic defensive struggle.

However, that 1991 win over Furman is one of just three victories by the Bulldogs over top 10 opposition since 1990. Two of those wins came in 1991; Appalachian State was ranked #9 when the Bulldogs beat the Mountaineers that season.

The Citadel defeated East Tennessee State in 1997 in Johnson City when the Bucs were ranked #8 (and still played football). Other than that, nothing:

– The Citadel vs. Top 10 opposition since 1990: 3-40 (29 straight losses)
– The Citadel vs. Top 5 opposition since 1990: 0-23
– The Citadel vs. Georgia Southern since 1990 when GSU was in the top 10: 0-9

I’m not trying to be negative. I’m just trying to provide a little perspective. If The Citadel were to win on Saturday, it would be the biggest win for the football program in at least fifteen years and the signature victory for Kevin Higgins in his tenure at the school.

It would also snap a rather ignominious streak: the Bulldogs have lost nine consecutive conference home games since beating Samford in 2009. The Citadel has not won a SoCon contest at Johnson Hagood Stadium since switching to the triple option offense.

While Georgia Southern has a history of high-octane offenses and rushed for 557 yards last week in a 58-0 demolition of Jacksonville, the Eagles’ best player is defensive lineman Brent Russell. He has had any number of big games (his performance versus Navy in 2010 was particularly noteworthy). Russell didn’t have a big game against The Citadel last year, though, because he was suspended and didn’t play.

Russell is back for this season’s matchup with the Eagles, but the Bulldogs will be without his fellow All-SoCon defensive lineman, Derek Douglas. Advantage: GSU.

One of the easy storylines for this game would be Russell matching up against The Citadel’s all-league center, Mike Sellers. However, it is unlikely there will be many (if any) one-on-one battles between the two star linemen. Kevin Higgins noted this at his weekly press conference when he pointed out Russell is now a “three technique” lineman.

Georgia Southern has moved Blake Riley to nosetackle in an effort to keep Russell from being repeatedly double-teamed, and as a result it will likely be The Citadel’s guards who will have to deal with Russell more often than not. Of course, the Bulldogs will try to neutralize him whenever possible by optioning off of him. The best way to neutralize Russell, though, is to block him. That will be a difficult task.

Another key figure in GSU’s defense will be Patrick Flowe, who is starting at middle linebacker for the Eagles as a true freshman.  It is surely unusual for a team coming off back-to-back appearances in the national semifinals to immediately start a true freshman at middle linebacker.

Curiously, Flowe is listed as the backup at MLB in GSU’s game notes.

Georgia Southern’s offense did not complete a pass in eight tries against Jacksonville, not that it mattered. In my preview of the Charleston Southern game I mentioned how overrated “balance” in an offense can be. To further illustrate this, GSU is 7-0 in modern program history when it fails to gain any passing yardage. One of those games was in 2010 at Johnson Hagood Stadium against the Bulldogs.

In contrast to The Citadel’s stuttering start against Charleston Southern, GSU came out blazing against the Dolphins, scoring 27 points in the first quarter. The second play from scrimmage for the Eagles was a 79-yard touchdown run by Ezayi Youyoute, one of two quarterbacks who will see significant time for Georgia Southern.

Fifteen different players carried the ball at least once for GSU. They included B-back Dominique Swope (104 yards, 3 TDs), Youyoute (164 yards, 3 TDs), Youyoute’s fellow QB Jerick McKinnon (71 yards, some of which came as a slotback, and a TD), and Robert Brown (63 yards on three rushes).

Those who remember the 2010 game against Georgia Southern (and Bulldog fans could be excused for trying to forget it) will recognize McKinnon’s name, as the then-frosh QB had to replace regular starter Jaybo Shaw early in that contest. McKinnon rushed for 182 yards that afternoon on 35 carries, both of which remain career highs for him.

Brown played in that game too, but as the B-back. He has now been moved to slotback. The fact he will play at all on Saturday is borderline amazing (at least to me), as he had back surgery just seven weeks ago.

Georgia Southern’s offense this season is expected to be more explosive with Youyoute and McKinnon at the controls. Jaybo Shaw was efficient and effective, a solid passer who made good decisions running the triple option, but was not a breakaway threat.

Of course, that doesn’t mean the combination of Youyoute/McKinnon won’t make the right reads, or that either/or can’t throw a nice ball. It may be, however, that The Citadel is playing Georgia Southern at the right time of year, as the two QBs are still developing as signal callers.

Georgia Southern also ran a fake punt against the Dolphins, and recovered an onside kick while leading 41-0 (though I gather that may have been an accident).

GSU had excellent special teams units last year, but is breaking in a new placekicker and punter this season, and needs to find a kick returner to replace Laron Scott.

Speaking of Scott, he also blocked one of the two missed Bulldog PATs that were so critical in last season’s game (free safety Darius Eubanks blocked the other). The Citadel is going to have to do a much better job in that phase of the game.

Confusion alert: Darreion Robinson, Georgia Southern slotback/punt returner, meet Darien Robinson, The Citadel B-back. Both scored touchdowns in last year’s matchup.

Offensively, the Bulldogs face the challenge of trying to control the line of scrimmage against Russell and company. It goes without saying that fumbling six times in a half again would be a bad idea. Georgia Southern lost both of its starting cornerbacks from last season (including the ubiquitous Scott), so perhaps this is the week that Triple O’Higgins breaks out the forward pass in a major way.

I was impressed with freshman running back Vinny Miller last Saturday, as were many other observers. I wouldn’t be surprised if he assumed an expanded role in this week’s game. Miller was one of several freshmen who made significant contributions during the Bulldogs’ victory over the Buccaneers. Another who impressed in his debut was defensive tackle Colin Parsons.

The Citadel’s defense has to do its best to prevent big plays, although it is probably inevitable that GSU will break at least a couple of long gainers. Against Jacksonville, the Eagles had nine runs of 19 yards or more. To combat the Eagles’ explosiveness, The Citadel must punish the high risk/reward nature of GSU’s offense by forcing turnovers.

Last year’s game featured five Georgia Southern fumbles (two lost) and an interception. The Bulldog D needs to at least match that total on Saturday.

The Bulldogs also must win the special teams battle. It’s not just about the placekicking, either.

Georgia Southern held The Citadel’s offense to 264 yards of total offense last season, which was the second-best performance by the Eagle defense all year (only Elon had fewer yards against GSU). However, the Bulldogs matched them on the other side of the ball, as Georgia Southern’s offense produced fewer total yards against The Citadel’s defense (320) than any team it played in 2011 except Appalachian State.

I don’t see that kind of game playing out on Saturday. I think both offenses are going to move the ball and score more points. That would probably be a good outcome from The Citadel’s perspective, as the Bulldogs are less likely to win a low-scoring game.

Indeed, The Citadel is 2-35 in the Kevin Higgins era when scoring 20 or fewer points (including an 0-4 record last season). I can understand having that bad a record when scoring 10 or fewer points, or even 14, but 20? Conversely, GSU is 2-5 under Jeff Monken when scoring 20 or fewer points.

It will be Military Appreciation Day on Saturday. It should be a festive occasion, with plenty of different events happening in conjunction with the football game. It will be even more festive if the home team can pull off a big upset. I would like to see a really big fiesta at Johnson Hagood Stadium that night.