2014 Football, Game 8: The Citadel vs. Western Carolina

The Citadel vs. Western Carolina, to be played to be played in Cullowhee, North Carolina, on the grounds of Bob Waters Field at E.J. Whitmire Stadium, with kickoff at 2:00 pm ET on Saturday, October 25. The game will not be televised. 

The contest will be streamed for free on the SoCon Digital Network, the league’s new streaming platform.

The game can be heard on radio via the various affiliates of The Citadel Sports Network. Mike Legg (the new “Voice of the Bulldogs”) will call the action alongside analyst Lee Glaze. It is also possible to listen to the action with a smartphone, using a TuneIn Radio application.

WQNT-1450 AM [audio link], originating in Charleston, will be the flagship station for The Citadel Sports Network. The pregame show and game broadcast will be produced by Jay Harper, who will also provide updates on other college football action.

Links of interest:

Game notes from The Citadel and Western Carolina

SoCon weekly release

Mike Houston at his 10/21 press conference

Mike Houston on the SoCon teleconference

Mark Speir on the SoCon teleconference

Great starts key great start for WCU football

Carson Smith was reinstated by the SoCon on Wednesday, following an appeal by The Citadel to the league’s executive committee. This will allow Smith to participate in Saturday’s game against Western Carolina.

I’m glad the executive committee made the right decision. Obviously, it would have been nice if the call on the field had not been botched in the first place, but you can’t have everything. Smith will presumably be more than ready to go against the Catamounts after missing almost the entire Chattanooga contest following the errant ejection.

The league’s press release was rather perfunctory, consisting of only eight sentences. It wouldn’t have been a bad idea for the SoCon to include an explanation from the committee as to why it overturned the suspension, but to be honest I wasn’t expecting an angry screed from the conference about the injustice of the situation.

That’s my job.

You may recall that last year, Western Carolina played what I called “Division I’s most absurd schedule”, as it faced three FBS squads (Middle Tennessee State, Virginia Tech, and Auburn) and two transitional FBS schools (Appalachian State and Georgia Southern), all on the road. This, after having not beaten a Division I team of any kind (FBS or FCS) since September of 2010.

That was last year. WCU eventually did pick up that elusive D1 victory later in 2013 (beating Elon in OT at Homecoming), but finished with a 2-10 record.

In 2014, things have changed. Western Carolina is still loading up on FBS opponents, with two this season (South Florida in the opener, Alabama in the finale), but the Catamounts currently sport a 5-2 record that includes three SoCon victories, including two straight.

That 3-0 SoCon record is a very big deal for WCU, given that the Catamounts entered this season having only won four league games since 2006. Western Carolina had lost 29 of its last 30 conference matchups prior to 2014.

WCU hasn’t been 3-0 in the league since 1994. If the Catamounts win on Saturday, they will match their best-ever league start.

It has taken time, but Mark Speir appears to have things moving in the right direction in Cullowhee. A competitive WCU program is good for the league, in my opinion.

The Citadel has won eight of its last ten meetings with the Catamounts, but clearly is going to have to get better going forward to continue having the upper hand in this series. That’s okay, though; the military college has to get better on the gridiron anyway.

While there is no question that Western Carolina has improved, I’m a little uncertain as to the level of improvement. WCU has defeated two non-D1 schools (Brevard and Catawba), a team with QB injury problems (Furman), and a conference debutant (Mercer).

However, the Catamounts can also claim a 26-14 home victory over Wofford. In that game, WCU ran back the opening kickoff for a touchdown, blocked a 24-yard field goal attempt, forced a fumble when the Terriers had 2nd-and-goal on the 1, and picked up a safety on another Wofford miscue.

Western Carolina actually had fewer total yards than the Terriers. On the other hand, Wofford had averaged 430 rushing yards in its previous eight games against the Catamounts, but was held to 270 yards on the ground this time. Wofford also had no aerial attack in that contest, completing just one pass for three yards.

That is an impressive defensive performance.

WCU’s season opener was a loss to South Florida in which the Catamounts led at halftime and only lost by five points (36-31). Western Carolina quarterback Troy Mitchell was 46-66 (not a typo) passing for 374 yards against the Bulls.

Mark Speir had a notable quote after that game, which after all was a very solid effort against an FBS program:

There will be no more moral victories in Cullowhee. You either win or you lose. We lost.

The Catamounts’ other defeat came at Presbyterian by a 19-14 score. PC won that game thanks mostly to a pair of pick-sixes, including one in the last two minutes of the game. Western Carolina outgained the Blue Hose 359-222, but couldn’t overcome five turnovers (including four interceptions).

The dynamics of the reshuffled SoCon and the loss to Presbyterian combine to make it difficult to assess just how good Western Carolina is this year. In all fairness, though, PC is 3-1 against FCS opposition so far this season. The Blue Hose spoiled Charleston Southern’s homecoming last week, suggesting Harold Nichols has turned the corner in Clinton.

Some general statistics for consideration:

Western Carolina has passed (or been sacked attempting to throw the ball) on 42.9% of its plays. It should be noted, though, that 53.5% of WCU’s total offense has come via the air; the Catamounts are second in the SoCon in offensive pass efficiency.

WCU is third in the SoCon in scoring offense and (perhaps more surprisingly) second in the league in scoring defense. Western Carolina is third in both total offense and defense in the conference.

The Catamounts are averaging 4.5 yards per rush and 7.4 yards per pass attempt; those numbers combine for  a 5.7 yards/play average. As a comparison, The Citadel’s offense has a 5.4 yards/play average, while the Bulldogs’ D is allowing 6.1 yards per snap.

WCU’s defense leads the league in defensive pass efficiency, but is only sixth-best in rush D. The Catamounts are allowing 4.5 yards per rush, a higher average than any SoCon squad except VMI and (sigh) The Citadel.

Western Carolina leads the SoCon in kickoff return average and is second in interceptions (conversely, The Citadel’s defense has yet to pick off a pass in 2014). WCU’s kickoff coverage unit isn’t nearly as good as its return team, as it’s next-to-last in the league.

WCU is the second-most penalized team in the league. However, The Citadel is last in the league in opponents’ penalty yardage.

The Bulldogs simply don’t force the opposition to make mistakes that result in penalties. Either that, or officials are simply less inclined to flag teams playing The Citadel; you be the judge.*

The Citadel and Western Carolina are 1-2 in the conference in third-down conversion rate (47.5% for the Bulldogs, 44.9% for the Catamounts). While Western Carolina’s D is middle-of-the-pack in third-down conversion rate against (39.6%), The Citadel is dead last in that category (a very poor 49.5%).

The Catamounts have dominated fourth down in 2014, converting 8 of 11 tries on offense and only allowing 4 of 12 conversions on defense. Both marks lead the conference.

Western Carolina’s offensive red zone touchdown rate is 73.9%, tied for the second-highest mark in the league (The Citadel’s offensive RZ TD rate: 72.4%). Defensively, WCU has a red zone TD rate of 52.4%; The Citadel’s 50% defensive TD rate in the red zone is the SoCon’s best.

*I threw that last line in for the commish.

Troy Mitchell is the starting quarterback for the Catamounts, and the key to WCU’s offense. He has been playing hurt in recent weeks, but Mark Speir downplayed that in the SoCon media teleconference:

“He’s a lot better. He threw the ball well last week, had the zip back on his passes. He gets a little bit sore, but is having no pain. I would say he was about 90-to-95-percent last week. With our athletic trainers, he’s done a great job in rehabbing. He’s back to 100-percent, Troy’s at full speed.”

Mitchell (6’0″, 205 lbs.) is a dual-threat quarterback, especially against The Citadel. The native of Houston has two career 100-yard rushing games; both have come versus the Bulldogs. In last season’s game, Mitchell was also 16-22 passing against The Citadel for 136 yards and a TD (with one interception).

This season, he is completing 65.4% of his passes, averaging 7.3 yards per attempt. Mitchell has thrown eleven touchdown passes while only being intercepted three times.

His rushing numbers in 2014 are relatively modest, averaging 4.0 yards per attempt, and 43 rush yards per game. That’s still the third-highest rush yardage total for the Catamounts.

Backup QB Garrett Brown has appeared in all seven games thus far for Western Carolina, and will likely see action on Saturday as well. Brown has changed roles a couple of times during his career in Cullowhee, having played running back and receiver as well as quarterback. As a freshman in 2011, he caught a 61-yard TD pass against The Citadel (and like this week’s contest, that was WCU’s homecoming game).

Darius Ramsey is the primary running back for WCU. Like Mitchell, Ramsey is a junior, one of many third-year players who have “grown up” in Mark Speir’s program. Also like Mitchell, Ramsey has two 100-yard rushing games on his résumé against The Citadel, having run for 118 yards in 2012 versus the Bulldogs and 102 yards in last season’s matchup (scoring two touchdowns).

Western Carolina has experience and productivity at the wide receiver position. Spearman Robinson (6’4″, 215 lbs.) has eight touchdown receptions this season. He had 120 yards receiving and two touchdowns against Furman, and added three more scores (and 102 receiving yards) last week versus Mercer. He’s a major threat.

Spearman Robinson (who is from Greenwood, SC) is one of two wideouts named Robinson who start for WCU, with sophomore Terryon Robinson being the other. Terryon Robinson and Spearman Robinson (not related) both have 28 receptions for the Catamounts so far this season.

Despite not having the surname Robinson, Karnorris Benson is still allowed to start at wide receiver for Western Carolina. That’s probably because Benson caught 12 touchdown passes last season, tying a school record. He’s missed some time this season, but was back for the Mercer game, catching his first TD pass of the campaign.

Western Carolina’s starting offensive line averages 6’2″, 281 lbs. It is made up primarily of third- and fourth-year players, though left guard Ethan James is a sophomore.

Right tackle Josh Wineberg is the tallest of the group, at 6’6″. He was a preseason second-team All-SoCon selection. Starting center Jake Thornton is the grandson of former Buffalo Bills guard Billy Shaw, a Pro Football Hall of Famer.

Tangent: Billy Shaw is the only player in the Hall to have never played in the NFL, having spent his entire career (1960-1969) in the AFL.

Western Carolina’s defense normally operates out of the 4-3, though as always that is subject to change given The Citadel’s triple option attack.

Defensive end Caleb Hawkins (6’3″ 255 lbs.) leads the team in tackles for loss, with 6 1/2. Rapidly improving defensive tackle Helva Matungulu (6’5″, 280 lbs.) is a native of Kenya who played Rugby 7s before trying American football at Western Carolina.

Noseguard Ezavian Dunn is a 6’2″ 315 lb. true freshman who has started three games this season for the Catamounts, including the last two. He blocked a field goal attempt against Wofford.

Linebacker Christon Gill has 63 tackles, most on the squad. He also leads WCU in sacks with three (two of which came versus Mercer last week).

Daniel Riddle is the Catamounts’ second-leading tackler. The linebacker is a question mark for the game on Saturday after suffering a shoulder injury against Mercer (though he is listed on WCU’s depth chart as a potential starter).

Sertonuse Harris was a safety in 2013; this year, he’s an impact linebacker. So far this season, Harris has six tackles for loss, two sacks, an interception, three pass breakups, and two fumble recoveries.

The Catamounts have a fine secondary, led by sophomore cornerback Trey Morgan (who has four interceptions to lead the conference). Morgan is from North Augusta, and is one of seven South Carolinians on Western Carolina’s roster.

Strong safety Ace Clark has good size (6’3″, 220 lbs.) and athleticism (he blocked a field goal attempt against The Citadel last year). Clark was a second-team all-SoCon pick by the league’s coaches following last season.

Sophomore safety Bryson Jordan is the son of former Falcon/Brave Brian Jordan.

Placekicker Richard Sigmon has only attempted three field goals this season, making all three (with a long of 33). He is also perfect on PATs. Last season, Sigmon was 10-13 on field goal attempts, and did not miss from inside 39 yards (8-8).

Sigmon has shared kickoff duties this season with Mark Powell.

Destry Barnwell is a true freshman from Charlotte who has done all the punting for Western Carolina this season. Barnwell is averaging 40.0 yards per punt, with eight of his thirty-three punts landing inside the 20-yard line (he also has four touchbacks).

Backup running back Detrez Newsome is the primary kick returner, and he’s a good one. He is averaging over 30 yards per return and took one back 100 yards for a TD to open the game against Wofford.

Terryon Robinson or Garrett Brown will serve as WCU’s punt returner on Saturday, as regular return man C.J. Goodman is out.

Odds and ends:

– Next season, Western Carolina will again play multiple FBS opponents. WCU will square off against Texas A&M and Tennessee in 2015.

– The game against The Citadel on Saturday will be Western Carolina’s Homecoming. The Catamounts and Bulldogs have met six times during Homecoming in Cullowhee; The Citadel is 5-1 in those games, with WCU’s sole victory coming in 2009.

Western Carolina was 0-5 entering that 2009 game, but defeated the Bulldogs 14-10 in one of the more inept offensive performances of the Kevin Higgins era.

– The Citadel also lost to WCU the following season, in 2010, which was the last time the Catamounts had beaten a Division I program until last year’s game against Elon.

– Bob Waters Field is an artificial surface. The most recent change in the field came in 2008, with the installation of Desso Challenge Pro 2 turf, a “nylon-like, woven base interlaced with synthetic ‘blades of grass’ that are approximately two inches in length.”

– Western Carolina’s nickname (“Catamounts”) was chosen in 1933. The second choice was “Mountain Boomers”. How great a nickname would “Mountain Boomers” have been? Oh, WCU, you missed a chance there.

Before adopting the “Catamounts” moniker, Western Carolina’s teams were known as the “Teachers” and also (according to some reports) the “Yodelers”.

– Per one source that deals in such matters, WCU is a 7-point favorite over The Citadel on Saturday. The over/under is 56.

– Spike The Bulldog is 6-2 so far in the Capital One Mascot Challenge. This week, his opponent is Boise State’s Buster Bronco.

Vote for Spike!

This is going to be a tough game for the Bulldogs. Western Carolina’s program has been imbued with a confidence that hasn’t really existed in Cullowhee in about a decade.

The players expect to win, and so does the fan base. My understanding is that Whitmire Stadium will be filled close to capacity on Saturday, so the atmosphere should be excellent.

I expect a fair number of blue-clad fans will be in attendance on what promises to be a beautiful day in the mountains. I can’t be among them this week, alas.

That’s okay, though. What is much more important is that the team comes ready to play.

When I watch the game on the SoCon Digital Network (hopefully figuring out a way to “simulcast” it with Mike Legg and Lee Glaze on the radio call), I expect to see spirit and commitment, things that appeared to be absent during the Chattanooga game. That is imperative.

I also want to see crisp play on both sides of the ball. For each and every game, I expect to see improvement in the team’s play. That obviously didn’t happen last week.

If things don’t get better, the Bulldogs won’t have much of a chance. However, I suspect The Citadel will rebound this week. If it does, I think there is an opportunity to pull off a road victory on Saturday.

Go Dogs!

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