2019 Football, Game 9: The Citadel vs. Mercer

The Citadel vs. Western Carolina, to be played at historic Johnson Hagood Stadium, with kickoff at 2:00 pm ET on October 26, 2019.

The game will be streamed on ESPN+. Kevin Fitzgerald will handle play-by-play, while Matt Dean supplies the analysis. Emily Crevani is the sideline reporter. 

The contest 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. 

Luke Mauro (the “Voice of the Bulldogs”) calls the action alongside analyst Ted Byrne.

The Citadel Sports Network — 2019 radio affiliates

Charleston: WQNT 1450 AM/92.1 FM/102.1 FM (Flagship)
Columbia: WQXL 1470 AM/100.7 FM
Sumter: WDXY 1240 AM/105.9 FM

Links of interest:

Preview from The Post and Courier

Marquise Blount is wreaking havoc

“Jeff’s Take” from The Post and Courier

– Game notes from The Citadel and Mercer

SoCon weekly release

“Gameday Central” on The Citadel’s website

Game preview on Mercer’s website

– Brent Thompson’s weekly radio show (10/23)

Brent Thompson’s weekly press conference (10/21), including an appearance by Bulldogs linebacker Phil Davis

– Marquise Blount repeats as SoCon Defensive Player of the Week, and Jacob Godek is the SoCon Special Teams Player of the Week

The Dogs:  Episode 9

– A Look At Game Day

– Volleyball Highlights!

– Bobby Lamb talks about Mercer’s win over VMI

– Mercer postgame player interviews following the VMI game

“Commissioner’s Corner” — a brief video interview of league commissioner Jim Schaus

– General (a/k/a “G2”) to be honored during cadet marchover

This weekend at The Citadel is Homecoming, of course. The school’s information page for the festivities can be found here: Link

Besides a schedule of events, that link includes a great picture of the 1906 Bulldogs football team. That squad won the national title (technically sharing it with Princeton and Yale), according to the TSA Matrix Ratings System. As you may recall, the TSA Matrix Ratings System is also the selector which crowned the 1871 football team the undisputed national champion for that season.

A few of the Homecoming activities worth mentioning:

Friday:

  • The Citadel plays Furman in soccer at WLI Field, with a start time of 3pm
  • The Memorial Parade begins at 5:10 pm

Saturday:

  • Open barracks on campus from 8:30 am to 10:00 am
  • The Summerall Guards perform on the parade ground at 8:50 am
  • The Homecoming Review Parade begins at 11:00 am
  • Kickoff of the football game is at 2:00 pm — don’t be late (remember that the security check at the gates will take a few minutes)

Sunday:

  • The Citadel plays Wofford in soccer at WLI Field, with a start time of 2:00 pm

Earlier this year, I wrote about Homecoming at The Citadel, listing all of the games that have been played since the original Homecoming contest (a 6-0 victory over Furman) in 1924.

You can read that post (which includes an incredibly handy spreadsheet) here: Link

A few Homecoming-related trivia items:

  • Saturday’s contest will be The Citadel’s 92nd Homecoming game (overall record: 47-42-2)
  • It will be the first time Mercer has been the opponent; the Bears are the 18th different school to be featured in that role
  • The Citadel’s first Homecoming opponent, Furman, has faced the Bulldogs 26 times in the celebration game, more than any other school
  • The Citadel has won the last seven Homecoming games, its second-longest streak (the longest was 10 straight from 1969 to 1978)
  • Brent Thompson is 3-0 on Homecoming; only Bobby Ross (5) won more such games without a loss as the Bulldogs’ head coach
  • Charlie Taaffe and Eddie Teague each won six Homecoming games as head coach of the Bulldogs, sharing the record for most wins
  • Before 2017, The Citadel had played 50 consecutive Homecoming games in November; now, the contest will have been played in October two of the last three seasons
  • Saturday’s game will be only the second time a Homecoming game has been played on October 26
  • The longest play of any kind by The Citadel (offense, defense, or special teams) in a Homecoming game was Nehemiah Broughton’s 92-yard touchdown run in the Bulldogs’ 44-24 victory over Chattanooga in 2004
  • Last season’s 42-27 triumph over Samford was also The Citadel’s largest comeback victory in a home game in school history

Let me very briefly discuss last week’s win over Furman. Admittedly, I could probably discuss it for a couple of hours, but a few sentences will suffice.

I’ll just mention one statistic, and one situation.

– The stat: Furman entered that game averaging 7.19 yards per play, which was third-best in all of FCS. The Citadel’s defense held the Paladins to 3.38 yards per play.

It is hard to do much better than that on the defensive side of the ball.

– The situation occurred late in the first half, with The Citadel leading 7-3:

Cit 4-2 at Cit19 Timeout Furman, clock 02:03.
Cit 4-2 at Cit19 Brandon Rainey rush for 4 yards to the CIT23, 1ST DOWN CIT

That will almost certainly be my favorite “go for it” decision of the year.

Was it the right call from an analytical point of view? It probably was (a little better than 50-50). How many other coaches would have gone for it? Very few.

Brent Thompson explained his reasoning on his coach’s show, and it made a lot of strategic sense — but in my opinion, the psychology of the decision was even more important.

That basically was the coach having confidence in his team (both offensively and defensively) and, at the same time, challenging his squad. There was an element of “we’re going to do this and you can’t stop us” to it, too.

It was a standout moment in what was just an excellent win in every way. I was particularly impressed by how the Bulldogs controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.

Now, the Bulldogs have to focus on Mercer.

Statistics of note for the Bears (through seven games):

Mercer Opponents
Points Per Game 30.86 31.71
Rush Attempts (sacks taken out) 221 289
Yards per rush (sacks taken out) 5.30 5.10
Att-Comp-Int 239-135-13 228-133-4
Yards/pass attempt (sacks included) 6.47 6.84
Total Plays 468 525
Yards per play 5.93 5.89
Total punts 32 38
Punting Net Average 31.6 33.9
Penalties-Yards 32-270 52-482
Penalty yards per game 38.57 68.86
Time of Possession per game 26:10 33:50
Offensive plays per second 23.49 sec 27.06 sec
3rd Down Conversions 37-94 (39.36%) 47-113 (41.59%)
4th Down Conversions 5-12 (41.67%) 6-10 (60.00%)
Fumbles-Lost 10-5 7-4
Sacks-Yards Lost 8-58 8-43
Red Zone: Touchdowns 15/24 (62.50%) 19/32 (59.38%)
Turnover Margin -10 +10
Run play % (sacks are pass plays) 47.22% 55.05%

– Mercer is tied for 118th in FCS in turnover margin (out of 124 teams). The Citadel is tied for 71st.

– The Citadel is first nationally in time of possession. The rest of the top five: Davidson, Yale, Wofford, and Portland State. Mercer is 121st, ahead of only Marist, Sacred Heart, and Samford.

– The Bulldogs are 12th in FCS in net punting, while MU is 113th.

– Mercer is 2nd in kickoff return average (27.27 yards per return). Only Elon has a better average than the Bears. The Citadel is 63rd (19.94).

– In the category of fewest penalties per game, Mercer is tied for 13th nationally. The Bulldogs are 27th.

– The Citadel is 55th in offensive third down conversion rate, while the Bears are 52nd.

– Defensively, Mercer is 83rd in third down conversion rate, while The Citadel is 86th.

– The Citadel is 7th nationally in offensive fourth down conversion attempts, and 3rd in conversions made. The Bulldogs’ 73.9% success rate (17 for 23) is the best among all teams with at least 20 attempts.

– Mercer is 39th in offensive yards per play. The Citadel is 102nd.

– On defense, MU is 83rd in yards allowed per play. The Bulldogs are 90th.

Mercer started its season with a 49-27 win at Western Carolina. The Bears’ David Durden returned the opening kickoff 82 yards, which set the tone for the game. Robert Riddle threw four TD passes, while Tyray Devezin rushed for two more (and caught one of Riddle’s touchdown throws). Five of MU’s touchdowns were 30 yards or longer.

Originally, Mercer had only scheduled 11 regular season games. However, the Bears added a 12th, playing at Presbyterian after the Blue Hose had a game against Stetson canceled due to Hurricane Dorian. MU took full advantage of its extra opportunity, routing PC 45-7. Riddle threw three more TD passes (and ran for a fourth score).

Those two victories, however, were washed away by four consecutive losses, with the first of those a 48-34 home loss to Austin Peay. The Bears had a punt blocked and threw two interceptions that were returned for touchdowns.

MU then lost at Furman, 45-10. The Paladins rolled up over 600 yards of total offense, including 410 rushing yards.

The following week, Campbell totaled 515 yards of offense in a 34-27 win in Macon. The Camels moved the ball equally well on the ground and through the air.

Then, Mercer lost 34-17 at Chattanooga. The Mocs took advantage of four MU turnovers, scoring 27 points in the second half.

After an open week, Mercer broke its losing streak with a 34-27 home victory over VMI. Late in the first half, Riddle suffered a terrible lower leg injury. His replacement was former starting QB Kaelan Riley, who led the Bears to a much-needed win.

In that game, Mercer showed a good deal of resiliency for a team coming off of four straight losses. The Bears could have packed it in on a miserable night, with bad weather and their starting quarterback suddenly out with a season-ending injury. Instead, they surged to a three-touchdown lead before a late Keydet comeback attempt.

Kaelan Riley (6’3″, 231 lbs.), a redshirt junior from Calhoun, Georgia, now takes over at quarterback for the Bears. Riley has 16 career starts (including 11 as a redshirt freshman), so he has plenty of experience.

Riley was the SoCon Freshman of the Year in 2017. That included a win against The Citadel, in which he was 12 for 23 for 111 yards passing. He played briefly versus the Bulldogs in last year’s game, after Robert Riddle was injured on Mercer’s final drive.

Last season, Riley completed 54.2% of his throws, averaging 8.69 yards per attempt (not accounting for sacks), with 12 TDs against just two interceptions. In limited time this year, he is 13 for 26 passing, with one TD and two picks.

Junior running back Tyray Devezin (5’8″, 233 lbs.) leads Mercer in rushing, and is averaging 5.8 yards per carry. The native of Woodstock, Georgia had a career night against VMI last week, rushing for 193 yards, including a 56-yard TD. Devezin, a preseason first team all-SoCon choice, has also caught two TD passes this season.

Another running back for the Bears, redshirt freshman Deondre Johnson (5’7″, 166 lbs.), is averaging 6.1 yards per rush attempt. He has three rushing touchdowns. Johnson, who came to Mercer as a walk-on, also returns kicks, and had a 98-yard TD return against Chattanooga.

Between them, Devezin and Johnson average 23 carries per game for the Bears.

Eight different players have caught touchdown passes for Mercer this season.

The leading receiver for the Bears is Tucker Cannon (6’0″, 192 lbs.), a redshirt junior from Dunwoody, Georgia. Cannon has 25 receptions, and is averaging 18.2 yards per catch. He hauled in an 85-yard TD against Western Carolina.

Cannon is also Mercer’s primary punt returner, and he is a good one, averaging 7.8 yards per return. Cannon (also a kick returner) caught a TD pass versus The Citadel last season.

Tight end Chris Ellington (6’4″, 237 lbs.), a preseason second team all-league selection, has 19 catches, with 3 touchdown grabs. The senior from Jacksonville had 74 receiving yards and a TD versus VMI last Saturday.

Mercer will miss David Durden (6’2″, 197 lbs.), a sophomore wideout who was the preseason first team all-conference return specialist. Durden, who caught five passes against The Citadel last season (including one for a TD), is out for at least three more weeks with a back injury.

Mercer’s projected starters on the offensive line average 6’3″, 305 lbs. Left tackle Austin Sanders (6’3″, 287 lbs.) was a first-team All-SoCon media selection last year.

Mercer has a new defensive coordinator this season, Mike Adams. He spent the last three years at Charleston Southern as special teams coordinator (and also coached the safeties), but he has previous experience as a defensive coordinator, as he held that position at South Carolina State from 2006 to 2014.

MU has a solid defensive line, led by human bowling ball Dorian Kithcart (6’0″, 288 lbs.), a redshirt senior from Durham, North Carolina. Kithcart leads Mercer in tackles for loss (7 1/2).

Also looming on the d-line (figuratively and literally) is 6’5″, 297 lb. Destin Guillen, a redshirt senior defensive end from Greenville. Guillen is one of five redshirt seniors for Mercer who start on defense.

Inside linebacker Will Coneway (5’11”, 217 lbs.) leads the Bears in tackles this season, with 42. He also led MU in tackles last year (including a 13-stop performance against The Citadel). There is some question as to the status of the redshirt senior for Saturday’s matchup, as he was injured last week in the VMI game.

Malique Fleming (5’11”, 208 lbs.) was a preseason second team all-league pick at defensive back, but he is listed on Mercer’s most recent two-deep as an outside linebacker. The redshirt junior from Nashville played free safety last season (and from that position made nine tackles versus the Bulldogs).

Redshirt junior cornerback Harrison Poole (5’11”, 196 lbs.) had quite a night against VMI, with five pass breakups. As Bobby Lamb pointed out earlier this week, the leader in that category in the SoCon for the season has only eight (that would be East Tennessee State’s Tyree Robinson).

Poole isn’t currently listed among the league leaders in passes defended, presumably because he has only played five games — but thanks to his game versus Keydets, just three conference players have more passes defensed than he does.

– Mercer special teams, the good: as mentioned above, the Bears have outstanding return units. MU also has a fine placekicker, Caleb Dowden (5’11”, 174 lbs.). The redshirt freshman from Statesboro has yet to miss a kick this year, making all nine of his field goal tries (with a long of 45 yards) and going 27-27 on PATs.

MU’s kickoff specialist is first team FCS Hair All-American Devin Folser (6’2″, 170 lbs.), a freshman from McDonough, Georgia. Only one of his 38 kickoffs has resulted in a touchback.

– Mercer special teams, the bad: the Bears have had three punts blocked. Wait, is that the Sean-Thomas Faulkner batsignal going off?

Grant Goupil (6’1″, 184 lbs.) is Mercer’s regular punter (as he was two seasons ago). He has had punts blocked against Presbyterian (a partial, as it still went 16 yards), Austin Peay (which set up a TD for the Governors), and Chattanooga (which also set up a touchdown).

Dowden has punted seven times for the Bears, including three of the four Mercer punts against VMI.

Odds and ends:

– The weather forecast for Saturday in Charleston, per the National Weather Service: a 30% chance of showers, with a high of 77 degrees. There is also a possibility of rain on Saturday evening (with a projected low of 67 degrees).

Per one source that deals in such matters (as of Wednesday evening), The Citadel is a 13-point favorite over WCU, with an over/under of 61 1/2.

Through eight games this season, The Citadel is 4-4 ATS. The over has hit only twice.

Other lines involving SoCon teams: Wofford is an 11-point favorite over Chattanooga; Furman is a 26 1/2 point favorite at Western Carolina; and Samford is a 4 1/2 point favorite versus East Tennessee State. VMI is off this week.

– Also of note: Elon is a 1 1/2 point favorite at Rhode Island; Towson is a 16 1/2 point underdog at James Madison; and Charleston Southern is a 3 1/2 point home underdog against Monmouth.

Georgia Tech is off this week, so its fans will get an extra seven days to celebrate last week’s overtime victory at Miami. The Yellow Jackets have split two overtime games this season.

In games between FCS schools, the biggest spread is 31, with North Carolina A&T favored over Howard.

– Massey Ratings: The Citadel is ranked 43rd in FCS. The Bears are 88th.

Massey projects the Bulldogs to have a 78% chance of winning, with a predicted final score of The Citadel 34, Mercer 24.

The top five teams in Massey’s FCS rankings this week: North Dakota State, South Dakota State, James Madison, Sacramento State, and Montana.

Other rankings this week of varied interest: Villanova is 10th, Kennesaw State 14th, North Carolina A&T 20th, Towson 24th, Elon 26th, Furman 28th, Sam Houston State 31st, UT Martin 35th, Alcorn State 40th, Wofford 45th, Jacksonville State 50th, Chattanooga 53rd, Richmond 57th, William & Mary 59th, Samford 61st, Austin Peay 66th, Georgetown 70th, VMI 74th, Campbell 77th, South Carolina State 79th, East Tennessee State 84th, Dayton 87th, Charleston Southern 90th, Davidson 91st, Colgate 95th, Gardner-Webb 99th, Eastern Illinois 104th, North Alabama 109th, Western Carolina 114th, Merrimack 119th, Butler 124th, and Presbyterian 126th (last).

– Mercer’s notable alumni include TV personality Nancy Grace, music promoter Phil Walden, and football coach Wally Butts.

– Mercer will play North Carolina later this season. Other future FBS opponents for the Bears include Vanderbilt (in 2020), Alabama (2021), Auburn (2022), and Mississippi (2023).

Mercer also has three games remaining in its series with Yale.

– Mercer’s roster includes 80 players from the state of Georgia. Other states represented: Florida (15 players), Tennessee (4), South Carolina (3), North Carolina (2), Alabama (2), and Ohio (1).

Geographically speaking, MU has the least diverse roster in the Southern Conference.

The three Palmetto State products on Mercer’s squad are redshirt sophomore quarterback Brett Burnett (Airport High School), redshirt freshman offensive lineman Tyrese Cohen (Midland Valley High School), and the aforementioned defensive end Destin Guillen (the redshirt senior went to Berea High School). They were also the only South Carolina natives on last year’s roster.

As has been the case for many years, Mercer has no players from storied pigskin powerhouse Orangeburg-Wilkinson High School. It appears that the school’s aspirations for its football team are painfully modest, as it is hard to imagine how any program with even a scintilla of ambition would not spend an inordinate amount of time and money recruiting the fantastic gridders that wear the famed maroon and orange.

– The Citadel’s geographic roster breakdown (per the school’s website) is as follows: South Carolina (53 players), Georgia (29), Florida (8), Texas (5), North Carolina (3), Pennsylvania (3), Alabama (2), New York (2), and one each from Virginia, Nebraska, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Minnesota, Ohio, and Kentucky.

In addition, there are two Bulldogs with listed hometowns in other countries — junior tight end Elijah Lowe (Abaco, Bahamas), and freshman linebacker Hayden Williamson (Okinawa, Japan).

– This week’s two-deep for The Citadel is almost unchanged from last week, with the only difference involving some of the linebackers’ position descriptions (though the players listed remain the same).

– The Citadel has an all-time record of 7-6-1 for games played on October 26. Among the highlights from past contests:

  • 1929: At the original Johnson Hagood Stadium, The Citadel shut out Presbyterian 14-0. Edwin McIntosh scored two touchdowns and also added both PATs. The star of the game on offense for the Bulldogs was halfback Howard “Red” Whittington, whose superb running set up the second TD. The Bulldogs collected two turnovers on defense, as Julius “Runt” Gray intercepted a pass and Louis Kirby recovered a PC fumble.
  • 1940: Before an estimated 4,000 home supporters, the Light Brigade trounced Oglethorpe 25-0. (Yes, during this era The Citadel’s varsity teams were occasionally referred to as the “Light Brigade”, but most alums didn’t like it and “Bulldogs” became the nickname of choice again after World War II.) Hank Foster opened the scoring with a 52-yard punt return for a TD. Joe Bolduc added a touchdown run to increase the lead, and then “Big Ben” Suitt added two more TDs, the second of which Suitt set up himself with a blocked punt.
  • 1957: The Bulldogs edged Furman at Johnson Hagood Stadium, 18-14, as 12,000 spectators looked on. The Citadel had taken an 18-0 lead on a touchdown run by Joe Chefalo and TD catches by Bob Saunders (from quarterback Dick Guerreri) and Joe Davis (on a halfback option pass by Tom Hemmingway). Furman stormed back to make it a game, but a final play that resulted in a touchdown for the Purple Hurricanes came too late, as time had expired.
  • 1974: On Parents’ Day at Johnson Hagood Stadium, The Citadel defeated Appalachian State, 28-17. Gene Dotson scored two rushing TDs and threw for another, with Dickie Regan making the touchdown grab. Andrew Johnson rushed for 117 yards, including a 55-yard burst for a TD. The story of the game may have been on the other side of the ball, though, as the Bulldogs’ defense forced six turnovers. One of them came on an interception by Brian Ruff, who was named SoCon defensive player of the week for that and for his 29 credited tackles (16 “primary” and 13 “assisted”). Oh, by the way: Ruff was playing with two broken wrists.
  • 1991: At the Oyster Bowl in Norfolk, Virginia, the Bulldogs outlasted VMI, 17-14. Terrance Rivers and Jack Douglas both scored rushing TDs for The Citadel, and Rob Avriett added a 45-yard field goal. Neither team scored in the second half, with the Bulldogs’ defense keeping the Keydets at bay thanks to an interception by Lester Smith and two memorable stops by Lance Cook (VMI also missed two field goals). This game was also notable for an airplane delay that resulted in team doctor Kenny Caldwell and radio analyst Rob Fowler not getting to the game until halftime. After the contest was over, a group of cadets tore down one of the goalposts.
  • 1996: The Citadel defeated Georgia Southern 35-20 at Johnson Hagood Stadium. The Bulldogs trailed 14-7 at halftime, but scored four second-half TDs to pull away. Deon Jackson had 146 rushing yards and two touchdowns (including a 63-yard run). After an Eagle score, Carlos Frank took the ensuing kickoff 94 yards for a TD, and The Citadel never looked back. Kenyatta Spruill added a touchdown run, and Stanley Myers threw a 37-yard TD pass to George Hampton. Incidentally, most of this game is on YouTube.

You may have noticed that I only highlighted six of The Citadel’s seven victories on October 26. The other contest was a 28-21 win at East Tennessee State in 1985. That was the game in which Marc Buoniconti suffered a broken neck.

This has not been the easiest of years for Buoniconti; his father Nick passed away in late July after a long decline. Of course, the difficult reality is that there is no easy year for him, or an easy day for that matter.

I don’t really have much to say about that — no epiphany, no great words of wisdom. The one thing I will note, however, is that it has now been 34 years since the injury, and Marc Buoniconti is still with us. That is probably a tribute to his caretakers (including his father), and to modern medicine, but most of all it is a credit to him.

That determination and perseverance over such a long period of time is worthy of admiration and respect.

Against Furman last Saturday, The Citadel arguably played its best game in the last two seasons. Can the Bulldogs repeat that level of play versus Mercer?

It could be difficult. Mercer will be ready to play, and the Bears have a lot of talent. Homecoming can be a distraction, too.

Offensively, The Citadel needs to score early (and preferably often). This is the type of game where a fast start could pay major dividends.

The Bulldogs’ defense has a tricky task ahead of it. Mercer’s offensive attack could change markedly with a new quarterback. Or, maybe it won’t change at all. No one will know (at least, no one from The Citadel will know) until the ball is snapped.

Mercer is a bit of a boom-or-bust outfit when it comes to special teams. The Citadel must keep the Bears in “bust” mode throughout the contest.

Last week, the Bulldogs won convincingly despite losing the turnover battle (3-1). For this game, however, The Citadel must take advantage of Mercer’s giveaway tendencies.

I think the Bulldogs will be prepared. There is an opportunity for this team to reach goals that may have been thought out of reach just a couple of weeks ago, and the players and coaches know it.

Johnson Hagood Stadium should be a happening place on Saturday (even if the weather doesn’t completely cooperate). I’m looking forward to it.

I think everyone else is, too.

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