2015 Football, Game 8: The Citadel vs. Mercer

The Citadel vs. Mercer, to be played at historic Johnson Hagood Stadium, with kickoff at 2:00 pm ET on Saturday, October 31. The game will not be televised.

The contest will be streamed on ESPN3.com, with Kevin Fitzgerald providing play-by-play.

The game can be heard on radio via the various affiliates of The Citadel Sports Network. WQNT-1450 AM [audio link], originating in Charleston, will be the flagship station. WQNT will have a two-hour pregame show prior to each home football game. 

Mike Legg (the “Voice of the Bulldogs”) will call the action alongside analyst Lee Glaze. Jay Harper will report from the sidelines; he will host the first hour of the pregame show as well.

It is also possible to listen to the action with a smartphone, using a TuneIn Radio application.

Links of interest:

Preview of Mercer-The Citadel from The Post and Courier

– Game notes from The Citadel and Mercer

SoCon weekly release

Mike Houston on the SoCon teleconference

Bobby Lamb on the SoCon teleconference

– Bobby Lamb discusses Mercer’s loss to VMI and game against The Citadel on a Macon radio show

Mike Houston’s 10/27 press conference (with comments from Vinny Miller and Malik Diggs)

The Mike Houston Show (radio)

Promotional spot for Mercer-The Citadel

Mike Houston is the guide for a tour of facilities upgrades at Seignious Hall

– Joe Crochet, not wasting any time

Fans of The Citadel are very excited and enthusiastic right now, understandably (and justifably) so. The Bulldogs have played very well in recent weeks, recording decisive victories over three consecutive SoCon opponents, with two of those wins coming on the road.

Now, The Citadel returns to Johnson Hagood Stadium for a pair of conference home games before playing its league finale at Chattanooga. More than a few fans are already anticipating the matchup with the Mocs.

In a way, it’s hard to blame them. However, if you are already looking past Mercer (and/or VMI), I have a message for you: slow your roll.

The Bulldogs have a tough assignment on Saturday. If they aren’t at or near their best against Mercer, a loss is a distinct possibility.

Mercer has been snakebit in league play this season. The Bears are 0-3, but look at those losses:

– Mercer trailed Wofford by 10 points with just three and a half minutes to play, but rallied to tie the game and send it to OT. The Bears actually had a chance to win in regulation, but were stopped after having a 1st-and-goal on the Wofford 6-yard line in the final minute.

MU scored first in the extra session, but missed the extra point. The Terriers scored a matching TD, made the PAT and won the game 34-33.

Mercer outgained Wofford, ran 31 more plays, had a 31-18 advantage in first downs, forged a six-minute edge in time of possession, committed fewer penalties, blocked a field goal and an extra point, won the turnover battle 2-1…and still lost.

– The Bears led Western Carolina 21-3 in Cullowhee midway through the second quarter, but WCU would win the game 24-21 after scoring two fourth-quarter touchdowns (the second a 4th-and-goal conversion that came with just 42 seconds to play).

Again, Mercer outgained its league opponent, this time on the road. The Bears ran more plays, had more first downs, held the ball for almost nine minutes longer than the Catamounts, only committed one penalty, and did not give up a turnover. It wasn’t enough.

– The loss to VMI was different. The Keydets built an early 21-point lead and would eventually pile up 567 yards of total offense (including 391 through the air). Mercer won the turnover battle 4-1, but otherwise were generally outplayed over the course of the game.

Mercer still had a chance to tie the game late, however, as the Bears drove inside the VMI 25-yard line, only to be stopped on downs with 90 seconds remaining in the contest.

The defining statistic from that game? VMI’s otherworldly third-down conversion rate. The Keydets converted 17 of 19 third-down attempts, including their first 12.

The run of 12 straight third-down conversions by VMI included eight passes and a QB scramble; six of those plays were 3rd-and-7 or longer. I can’t imagine how frustrating that must have been for Mercer.

The next few sections include statistical team/conference comparisons for all games, unless otherwise indicated.

I debated just using SoCon games this week when making comparisons, but as Mercer has only played three league contests, I elected to go with the all-games model. I’ll occasionally note some SoCon-only numbers, however.

One reason for doing so is Mercer’s non-conference schedule, which includes three blowout victories over less-than-stellar competition.

Mercer has two wins over teams yet to win a game this season, Austin Peay (a road victory) and East Tennessee State. The Bears won those contests by a combined score of 80-7.

MU also defeated Stetson 57-14, a game played in Macon. The Hatters play in the non-scholarship Pioneer League, the same conference in which Davidson is a member.

The Bears’ other non-league game was a 29-22 loss at Tennessee Tech, which plays in the Ohio Valley Conference and currently has a 2-6 record (including a 34-14 loss to Wofford).

Meanwhile, The Citadel is 5-2, with victories over Davidson (69-0), Western Carolina (28-10), Wofford (39-12), Samford (44-25), and Furman (38-17). The Bulldogs have lost to Charleston Southern (33-20) and Georgia Southern (48-13). The games against the Eagles, Paladins, and Birmingham Bulldogs were all on the road.

In seven games, Mercer’s offense has thrown the ball 208 times; four would-be pass plays resulted in sacks, a very low percentage. Not counting those sacks, the Bears have rushed 310 times, so MU has run the ball on 59.8% of its offensive plays from scrimmage.

Passing yardage accounts for 50.7% of Mercer’s total offense (with sack yardage removed from the total). The Bears average 7.8 yards per pass attempt (again, with sacks/yardage taken into account). Incidentally, that average does not appreciably change when only league games are taken into consideration.

Among SoCon teams, Mercer is third in scoring offense (33.4 ppg) and second in total offense (6.3 yards per play). The Citadel is third in scoring defense (20.9 ppg) and total defense, allowing 5.4 yards per play.

Mercer’s scoring average declines to 25.0 ppg in conference matchups.

The Bears are third in passing offense, averaging 240.4 yards per game (227.7 yards per game in three SoCon contests). MU is first among SoCon teams in offensive pass efficiency, with twelve touchdown tosses and no interceptions.

Let me repeat that: no interceptions. Mercer hasn’t thrown an interception all season. 208 pass attempts, no picks. That is impressive regardless of the level of competition, and a credit to Bears quarterback John Russ, who has thrown 195 of those passes.

The Citadel is second in the conference in pass defense, but first in pass defense efficiency. The Bulldogs are allowing 6.2 yards per pass attempt, best in the league, and have intercepted 13 passes (tops in the conference, and tied for third nationally in FCS).

Last week, The Citadel allowed two touchdown passes to Furman, increasing the total number of TD throws against the Bulldogs’ D this season to three. The 13/3 interception/TD ratio is tied for the best such mark in FCS (with Southern Utah).

The interception-free Mercer attack against the ball-hawking Bulldogs’ D…I guess that would be an unstoppable force versus an immovable object kind of thing.

As I noted in the first paragraph in this section, Mercer quarterbacks have only been sacked four times all season. The Citadel’s defense has recorded 16 sacks, second-best in the league (Chattanooga has 22 sacks). On an individual level, Mitchell Jeter has six of those sacks for the Bulldogs, second-most in the SoCon.

Mercer has completed 60.6% of its passes, fourth-best among league teams; the Bears’ completion percentage in SoCon games is just under 58%. MU is averaging 29.7 pass attempts per contest, fifth-most in the conference. The Citadel’s defense is allowing an opponents’ completion percentage of 60.2%, fourth-best in the conference.

MU is fourth in the SoCon in rushing offense, averaging 5.0 yards per carry (though in games against league teams that number drops to 4.2).

The Citadel is fifth in rushing defense, and is allowing 4.7 yards per rush (next-to-last in the league in that category). However, when only conference games are taken into account, the Bulldogs are second in rushing defense (and only allow 3.5 yards per rush).

Mercer is converting 46% of its third-down attempts, third-best in the SoCon. The Citadel is second in the league in defensive third down conversion rate (38.4%).

The Bears have a red zone TD rate of 80% (24-30), which is tops in the conference; 16 of the 24 touchdowns Mercer has scored in the red zone came via the rush. The Citadel’s red zone defensive TD rate (55%) ranks second in the conference.

When going for it on fourth down this season, Mercer is 12 for 20 (60%). Opponents of The Citadel have tried fifteen fourth-down attempts, converting ten times (Furman converted its only fourth-down try against the Bulldogs last week).

Mercer is second among league teams in both scoring and total defense, allowing 19.4 points and 353.4 yards per game. The Bears are allowing 5.3 yards per play. However, that number rises to 6.4 yards per play in games versus conference squads.

MU is first in the SoCon in rushing defense, allowing 3.7 yards per rush attempt (35th nationally). Mercer opponents have scored twelve rushing touchdowns in seven games.

There is a vast discrepancy in Mercer’s rush defense statistics when the Bears’ three league contests are isolated, though. In those three contests, MU is allowing 5.8 yards per rush.

The Citadel is first in scoring offense (35.9 ppg), third in total offense (averaging 6.4 yards per play) and leads the league in rushing offense (a category in which the Bulldogs rank second nationally, behind only Cal Poly of the Big Sky Conference). The Citadel is averaging 5.8 yards per rush attempt, best in the conference.

The Bulldogs are last in the SoCon in passing yardage per game, but average a league-best 10.6 yards per pass attempt, and are third in offensive pass efficiency among conference squads. The Citadel has five TD passes and two interceptions.

Mercer is sixth in pass defense among SoCon outfits, fourth in defensive pass efficiency, with seven interceptions against seven touchdown passes allowed (three of those picks came last week versus VMI). The Bears’ D has fourteen sacks in seven games.

At 53.3%, The Citadel leads the conference in offensive third down conversion rate, and is third nationally (trailing James Madison and Kennesaw State). MU is last in the SoCon in defensive third down conversion rate, with a terrible 51.9% rate (third-worst in all of FCS).

That percentage is even worse in league matchups (65.9%), which is what happens when you allow 17 out of 19 possible third-down conversions in one game.

The Citadel has an offensive red zone TD rate of 71.9%, third-best in the league. The Bulldogs have 23 touchdowns from red zone possessions this season, and all of them have come via the rush.

Mercer’s red zone defensive TD rate is 68.2%, which ranks next-to-last among conference teams.

The Bulldogs did not have a fourth-down conversion attempt last week, so they remain 3 for 8 on fourth down tries this year. The Bears’ defense has faced seven fourth-down conversion attempts, and has prevented a first down on five of those occasions.

The Citadel is +5 in turnover margin (gained eighteen, lost thirteen), second in the league in that category to Mercer; the Bears are +6 (gained eleven, lost five).

Mercer is tied for seventh nationally in fewest turnovers.

On field goal attempts, the Bulldogs are 5 for 7, with Eric Goins converting a 22-yarder to close out the first half against Furman last week. MU has made seven of twelve tries. The Bears have struggled a bit on PATs, missing four of them (27-31). The Citadel has yet to miss an extra point this season.

The Citadel is third in the conference in net punting yardage (37.7), while Mercer ranks fourth (38.7). As for kickoff coverage, the Bulldogs are second in the league, while the Bears are third.

Mercer is second in the SoCon in kickoff return average (24.2 yards). The Citadel is fifth (22.6). The Bulldogs did not return a kickoff last week; all four of Furman’s kickoffs resulted in touchbacks.

The Bulldogs rank fifth in time of possession (31:01) among league teams. The Bears are third in that category (31:52).

MU is averaging 74.5 plays from scrimmage per game, with a very fast 2.34 plays-per-minute rate. The Bulldogs are averaging 68 plays per game, with a 2.19 plays-per-minute rate.

Mercer has been called for fewer penalties this year than any other SoCon team (3.7 per game). In fact, the Bears lead the nation in that category.

MU is likely to continue to lead the nation in fewest penalties after Saturday, given the aversion of league officials to penalize Bulldog opponents. Only 4.6 penalties per game have been called against The Citadel’s opponents this year (second-fewest in the conference), a multi-year trend.

Note: all statistics in the following sections are for all games.

Mercer quarterback John Russ (6’0″, 202 lbs.) has completed 61.5% of his passes, averaging 8.3 yards per attempt, with twelve TD passes and no interceptions. He ranks second in the SoCon in individual pass efficiency.

Russ is responsible for 27 plays this season of 20 yards of more, 25 through the air and two on the ground. While he prefers to throw the ball, he is not afraid to run, as The Citadel found out in last season’s game against the Bears.

In that matchup, Russ rushed for 96 yards on 14 carries, including a 31-yard run. He also threw a 65-yard TD pass against the Bulldogs.

Alex Lakes (5’11”, 216 lbs.) rushed for 1,107 yards last season, which led the SoCon. However, he is currently the backup running back in Mercer’s “pistol” offense.

Lakes is still averaging over 10 carries per game, but Tee Mitchell (5’10”, 194 lbs.) is starting for the Bears. Mitchell is second in the league in rushing, averaging 95.4 yards per game.

It should be noted that Lakes suffered a punctured lung against Tennessee Tech, and missed the Bears’ game versus Wofford. That injury has surely affected his performance to this point in the season.

Mercer’s most feared big-play threat is sophomore wideout Chandler Curtis (5’11”, 201 lbs.), a first-team All-SoCon selection last season as a freshman. Curtis was an impact returner in 2014, with three punt return touchdowns and a kickoff return for a score.

Curtis hurt his ankle in Mercer’s season opener, and just returned to action last week against VMI. He had 7 catches for 109 yards and a TD in that game.

In his absence, Avery Ward (6’2″, 178 lbs.) is leading the team in receptions (28, twice as many as any other receiver). He also has four TD catches this season. Ward caught a touchdown pass against The Citadel in last year’s game.

John Russ throws a lot to the tight end, with players at that position catching 31 passes so far in 2014. Starting TE Robert Brown (6’1″, 229 lbs.) has 13 receptions, including a 51-yard catch versus Stetson and a 50-yarder against East Tennessee State.

Mercer’s projected starters along the offensive line average 6’2″, 284 lbs. Kirby Southard (6’0″, 273 lbs.) has started every game at center for Mercer since the beginning of the 2013 season.

Right tackle Bret Niederreither (6’2″, 280 lbs.) began his collegiate career at Temple. In last year’s game against The Citadel, Niederreither started at defensive tackle. This season, he has started all of Mercer’s games on the offensive line.

Mercer normally lines up on defense in what is listed as a 3-3-5 setup. Of course, the Bears may line up differently against The Citadel’s triple option attack.

Middle linebacker Lee Bennett (6’0″, 223 lbs.) leads the Bears in tackles, with 39. He had 14 tackles last week against VMI.

Tripp Patterson (6″0, 224 lbs.) is second on the team in tackles, despite making his first start last week. The transfer from Air Force has also had a 14-tackle game (versus Wofford).

Macon native Tyler Ward (6’1″, 236 lbs.) starts at the weakside linebacker position, and is Mercer’s all-time leader in tackles.

“Bandit” linebacker Tosin Aguebor (6’3″, 238 lbs.) leads the team in sacks (4) and tackles for loss (7.5). Aguebor started every game for Mercer in 2013, but missed all of 2014 with an injury.

Another linebacker, Kyle Trammell (6’0″, 227 lbs.) blocked two kicks against Wofford, before leaving that game with a knee injury. He hasn’t played since, though Bobby Lamb said on a local Macon radio show this week he was hopeful Trammell would be back on the field against The Citadel.

Nosetackle Austin Barrett (6’2″, 314 lbs.), a preseason second-team All-SoCon selection, had two sacks last week. Defensive end Tunde Ayinla (6’0″, 254 lbs.) has been a starter for three years.

Free safety Zach Jackson (6’0″, 203 lbs.) is a transfer from TCU. He had 10 tackles versus The Citadel last season. He was injured in last week’s game against VMI, but is expected to play this Saturday.

Cornerback Alex Avant (5’8″, 176 lbs.) was a preseason second-team all-league pick.

Placekicker Jagger Lieb is 6 for 11 on field goal attempts, with a long of 43. Last season, he made a 48-yarder against The Citadel.

Lieb is 24-27 on PAT attempts. His holder, Rob East, has had that role since 2013 (and has also done some punting for the Bears).

Punter Matt Shiel is a native of Australia who is a transfer from Auburn. Australian punters are all the rage right now in college football.

Shiel, like most of his compatriots, is a former Australian Rules Football and rugby player. He is averaging 43.6 yards per punt, with a long of 73 (last week versus VMI). Eight of his twenty-two punts have been downed inside the 20; he also has three touchbacks.

John Abernathy has been Mercer’s long snapper for the past three seasons.

While Stephen Houzah, Jimmie Robinson, and Jeff Bowens are listed as the returners on the Bears’ two-deep, you can bet Bulldog coaches are watching to see if Chandler Curtis returns to that role this week.

Curtis “scared us to death” in last year’s game, according to Mike Houston on his radio show. I can certainly understand that.

Odds and ends:

– The Citadel has been a member of the Southern Conference since 1936. It has never started 5-0 in league play.

– The weather forecast is great. As of Thursday night, the National Weather Service was projecting a nice, sunny day in Charleston on Saturday, with a high of 74 degrees and winds out of the east at 8 miles per hour.

The Bulldogs have won three straight, are 4-0 in the SoCon and on pace to play for a league championship. For the first time this season, weather won’t be an issue for a home game at The Citadel.

I hope all of that results in a big crowd at Johnson Hagood Stadium.

– Massey Ratings update: The Citadel is rated 111th in Division I, 16th among FCS teams. Chattanooga is the highest-rated SoCon team (12th in FCS).

One major caveat to those ratings is that Harvard is rated first among FCS teams. I know the Crimson is riding a long winning streak, but I don’t believe Harvard is close to being the best team in FCS.

Mercer is rated 91st among FCS teams, one spot ahead of South Carolina State.

Other FCS ratings in Massey of note include Western Carolina (23rd), Samford (41st), Furman (45th), Wofford (47th), VMI (74th), Davidson (121st), ETSU (124th), and Mississippi Valley State (125th, and last).

South Carolina is rated 61st among all D1 squads; Georgia Southern is 64th. (Clemson is 2nd.)

– Per one source that deals in such matters, The Citadel is an twenty-point favorite over Mercer. The over/under is 55.

I cringed when I saw that. Heck, I hated to even type it.

It also struck me as a bogus line. Mercer has played ten games since joining the SoCon. It is 1-9 in those games, but only twice has lost by more than 7 points. Both of those games came last year, when the Bears lost 35-21 to Western Carolina and 34-6 at Wofford (in the 2014 season finale).

– Other lines involving SoCon teams: Chattanooga is an eight-point favorite over Western Carolina; Samford is favored by eight points over Furman; and Wofford is a seven-point favorite at VMI.

The WCU-UTC game will probably be the one of most interest to Bulldog fans. At least, it should be.

– East Tennessee State is in its first year of restarting a football program that will begin playing a SoCon schedule next year. The Buccaneers are 0-7 (including that loss to Mercer I referenced earlier), but have a chance to finally pick up a win this week. ETSU is a seven-point favorite at home against Warner, an NAIA Division II school located in Lake Wales, Florida.

– Of the 22 starting positions on The Citadel’s offensive and defensive units, the same player has started every game for 20 of them. That continuity is important, and beneficial.

– Mercer has 76 players from Georgia on its roster, by far the most from any state. Other states represented: Florida (13), Tennessee (6), Alabama (4), North Carolina (2), and one each from Pennsylvania, Michigan, and South Carolina (Destin Guillen, a freshman defensive lineman from Berea High School in Greenville).

Of course, the Bears also have an Australian, the aforementioned Matt Shiel.

– The Bulldogs haven’t beaten Mercer in Charleston since 1929. Of course, this will be only the second game between the two schools in Charleston since 1929.

– The Citadel has victories over Mercer in four different cities: Charleston, Macon, Savannah, and Augusta.

– This week, the Bulldogs will again sport the “blazer” look. Perhaps the light blue and white will return for Homecoming. It would be nice. I’m not expecting it, though.

What worries me about this game is that it could be a repeat of last year’s matchup, when The Citadel let Mercer back into the game in the second half and was very fortunate to come away with a two-point victory.

I’m basing that concern in part on some occasional second-half struggles this year. The way the Bulldogs played against Furman in the third quarter was a good example of that, and something The Citadel can’t afford to let happen again this week.

Mercer has a lot of big-play possibilities among its offensive players, and may be getting some of them back at the right time (notably Chandler Curtis).

I’m confident in the Bulldogs. It’s just that I think Mercer is much closer to “turning the corner” than its league record suggests. One of these weeks, Mercer is going to find itself on the right side of a SoCon scoreline.

I hope it isn’t this week, though. The Citadel has its own corner to turn.

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