Kirk Herbstreit: the worst thing going on in college football?

Last Saturday, there was a segment on ESPN’s popular College GameDay show centered around FBS-FCS matchups. You can watch it here:

Link

With the exception of Lee Corso, the ESPN crew was highly critical of FBS-FCS games, particularly those occurring late in the season (an SEC specialty).

The segment began with Chris Fowler listing a series of recent SEC opponents from the FCS. Fowler then noted:

Of course, a year ago this week Georgia Southern went to the swamp and did stun Georgia, giving license to all the SEC coaches to talk up the virtues, the worthiness, of today’s opponents.

Fowler delivered this line with a great deal of sarcasm, concentrating so much on his delivery that he forgot Georgia Southern actually beat Florida last year, not Georgia.

ESPN then showed snippets of various SEC coaches discussing their opponents for this week. The clips were clearly selected to make it seem that the coaches were overhyping their FCS foes.

If you were really paying attention, though, there wasn’t that much sandbagging going on. Mark Richt was probably a little over-the-top in extolling Charleston Southern’s “fever” to win, but there was nothing fraudulent about Gus Malzahn saying Samford was a “good I-AA team” (it is), or Nick Saban stating that Western Carolina was “a much improved team” (certainly true), or Will Muschamp noting that Eastern Kentucky was a playoff team in “I-AA, or whatever we’re calling that now” (he was right, as EKU made the FCS playoffs).

Also, Muschamp lost to an FCS school last year. Why wouldn’t he be concerned with a matchup against another team from that division?

Heck, he had been fired earlier in the week. Why would he have bothered overselling the game anyway?

Arguably, though, the most misleading clips were those of South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, as he discussed South Alabama, the Gamecocks’ opponent last Saturday. There was no mention by anyone on the set that South Alabama wasn’t actually an FCS school at all (the Jaguars are members of the Sun Belt).

Considering South Carolina’s struggles of late (particularly on defense), Spurrier had good reason to be respectful of his upcoming opponent.

“We’re not trying to belittle [the FCS],” said Fowler, after spending the previous two minutes belittling the FCS. He then criticized the SEC for playing these games. “It’s not good for the sport.”

After a short interlude with Corso, Kirk Herbstreit looked right at the camera and said:

This is the worst thing that goes on in college football.

Yes. He said that. The worst thing that goes on in the sport. FCS vs. FBS matchups. Not any of the myriad off-field issues, not the safety concerns on the field, none of that.

“No due respect to the FCS and what they’re doing,” Herbstreit continued (with an unintentional but perhaps more accurate slip of the tongue), “…there should be a penalty [from the college football playoff committee]…when you play games like this. We need to eliminate these games when it comes to the non-conference [schedules]. They’re not good for the FCS schools, they’re not good for the SEC schools, or any other schools that play ’em. It’s just bad for the game. We have no games this weekend!”

“I hate it!” me-tooed Desmond Howard, who added that when he was in school, his alma mater (Michigan) didn’t play FCS schools. Of course, that changed after Howard left Ann Arbor, as the Wolverines rather famously played an FCS school in 2007.

Lee Corso then pointed out that the games are a financial boon to the FCS schools. Herbstreit’s response: “We’ve got enough money now…if it’s about the money, give ’em the money, just don’t schedule [these games].” Corso began cackling at the notion.

Let’s go through some of these comments:

– “There should be a penalty…when you play games like this.”

A team that schedules quality FBS non-conference opponents is probably going to be looked upon more favorably by the playoff committee than one that plays lesser competition. I’m not even sure that’s an issue.

Exactly how many FBS schools are going to be competing for one of those playoff spots in a given year, however? There are 65 FBS schools in the power five conferences (including Notre Dame in that group). How many of them are going to be serious contenders for one of four spots? What about the other 63 schools that compete at the FBS level? (Well, we probably know the answer to that last question.)

– “They’re not good for the FCS schools.”

This statement made me wonder if Herbstreit has ever talked to someone associated with an FCS school.

Besides the money aspect mentioned by Corso, FCS players almost always love playing these games. They like to measure themselves against top-level competition. They enjoy playing in large stadiums, in a “big time” atmosphere, often on television.

Fans of smaller schools usually like these games too, especially if they aren’t too far away. They are often used for alumni networking and fundraising.

Sometimes, there is an element of tradition associated with these contests. You don’t think alums from Furman or The Citadel enjoy occasional matchups with South Carolina or Clemson? I can assure you that they do.

– “We have no games this weekend!”

Well, I looked at the schedule. I saw plenty of games.

There may not have been a matchup between two ranked SEC teams, but keep in mind that various ESPN networks featured several prominent SEC battles early in the season, while other conferences were in the midst of their non-league schedules. It’s a trade-off.

The truth of the matter is there were a lot of quality games played last weekend. Maybe you had to look a little deeper into the world of college football to find them, but is that such a bad thing?

Also, remember Week 5 of this season? That Saturday, College GameDay wound up at the Missouri-South Carolina game, due to a perceived lack of quality matchups (both the Gamecocks and Tigers already had a loss at the time, with Mizzou having just lost at home to Indiana).

Was that slate of games so poor because of a bunch of FBS-FCS matchups? No. There were only two such games in that week: Army-Yale (a game won in double overtime by the Elis), and Eastern Illinois-Ohio (the Bobcats won 34-19).

Sometimes, the schedule for a given week just isn’t going to be that alluring. That has little to do with FBS-FCS games (which were only around 7% of the complete FBS schedule for the regular season anyway).

Western Carolina head coach Mark Speir watched Herbstreit and company before WCU played Alabama later that day, and he wasn’t happy.

Now, I think Speir was a little heavyhanded in his criticism of Herbstreit. The “silver spoon” reference was not necessary.

However, I fully understand Speir’s frustration, and he had every right to call out the former Ohio State quarterback for his remarks (particularly the “worst thing that goes on in college football” line uttered by Herbstreit, which was simply ludicrous).

I thought it was good of Speir to speak out, and to let people know that he was personally offended by the comments that were made. Too often the point of view from the FCS side of the aisle goes unheard.

After all, Speir has been a coach on the FCS level for most of his career, including a long stint as an assistant at Appalachian State. He was in Michigan Stadium that fateful day when the Mountaineers stunned the Wolverines.

In my opinion, the FCS-FBS matchups are largely good for college football, because college football is about a lot more than the schools in the power five conferences. This is something that appears to be hard for some people to understand.

The concept of what is best for the greater good of college football — well, it seems to be lost in certain quarters. I’ve said this before, but I honestly get the impression some members of the national college football media cabal think there should only be thirty or forty schools that play football, and that the rest should just give up the sport.

I’m not the only person who gets that vibe, judging from these comments by Chattanooga head coach Russ Huesman:

Huesman was watching “Gameday” from his hotel room in Greenville, S.C., before the Mocs’ game against Furman, but he said he will not watch the show again.

“Herbstreit has bothered me for a few years now,” Huesman said. “Nothing to him matters except big-time college football. And then Desmond Howard jumped in, too, and that’s when I had had enough. I’ll never watch that show again.

“I thought it was absolutely ridiculous for them to put on a rant like that during the course of a show about college football. I thought it was disrespectful. He just alienated people.

It should be pointed out that the backdrop for Saturday’s ESPN discussion was an FCS game (Yale-Harvard), and that College GameDay visited the fine folks at North Dakota State earlier this season (for the second consecutive year). There are people at the network who clearly appreciate the FCS, along with other divisions of college football. I’m glad for that.

I just wish there were more of them, and that they were on camera.

ESPN College Football Announcers for 2010

ESPN has released its assignments for its college football game coverage, as well as its studio coverage.  As always, there are some new crews.  Highlights:

— Among the tandems that work the high-profile ESPN/ABC games, the one significant change is in the “west coast” team, where there will now be a three-man booth — Carter Blackburn, Brock Huard, and Mike Bellotti.  The former Oregon coach is in his first season as an analyst; he works with Huard, who was the analyst for the SEC ESPNU primetime game last year.  Blackburn called mostly west coast games on the U last season after moving over from CBS College Sports.

That team essentially replaces the Terry Gannon/David Norrie duo from 2009. Gannon is not listed on this year’s release; he may just have too much already on his announcing plate (Dave Lamont filled in for him a few times last season as it was). Norrie is going to ESPN Radio, replacing Dennis Franchione as Bill Rosinski’s analyst.  Norrie will also work a few midweek TV games (along with Robert Smith), teaming with Beth Mowins.

— That’s right, there is now a second woman play-by-play voice calling college football for ESPN.  Mowins will apparently have a limited schedule.

Pam Ward is still around, and presumably as intolerant of injured players as ever. However, she’s been moved from the noon ET ESPN2 slot to 3:30 pm ET on ESPNU, much to the relief of Michigan State and Northwestern fans everywhere.  Her analyst will be Danny Kanell.

— Kanell, the former FSU quarterback, also will do some studio work.  He’s the breakout star, I guess, of the multitude of game callers/analysts who worked ESPN360 (now ESPN3.com) games last season.  What does that say about the talent featured on ESPN3.com in 2009?  Well…

The release doesn’t mention anything about who will work ESPN3.com games this year; it does note that “additional commentators will contribute throughout the season”.  There will be a lot of “additional contributors” both on ESPN3.com and on the regular TV platforms.  Week 1, for example, will include 11 games that will be shown live exclusively on ESPN3.com.

— Erin Andrews will be hosting the first hour of an expanded College Gameday (that was announced last month).  She will also be the sideline reporter for the game site from which the program originates, assuming it’s on ABC/ESPN/ESPN2.

That means the other high-profile game tandems will probably flip-flop sideline reporters a bit more often than normal, although most of the time Andrews will likely work with Brent Musberger and Kirk Herbstreit.  Last year, the sideline reporter with that duo was Lisa Salters, who will not be back this year.

Quint Kessenich moves from the Big East regional game of the week to a national gig; his replacement on the sidelines for the Big East games is Eamon McAnaney.  I think there is a lacrosse announcer quota involved in that switch, but I’m not sure.

Andrews won’t be roaming the sidelines on Thursday night any more.  “The new EA” is Jenn Brown, who like Andrews is a Florida grad, blond, and destined to become a sports blog/message board favorite.

— The other change on Thursday nights is Rece Davis taking over play-by-play duties from Chris Fowler.  I like Davis, although he isn’t really a natural at play-by-play, but I’m not a fan of the Craig James/Jesse Palmer dual threat.  I find their combined analysis rather banal; at least James wears a properly sized tie.

— Fowler remains the ringleader for College Gameday, with Lee Corso (who I hope has now fully recovered from his stroke), Herbstreit, and Desmond Howard.  There was little change in personnel for the major studio shows. That’s right, another year of Dr. Lou (with Davis and Mark May) and The Bachelor (with John Saunders).  Robert Flores takes over as the new update guy on ABC.

There were some moves on the SEC-on-ESPN desk.  Dari Nowkhah will now be the syndication studio host, as Rob Stone will call games on ESPNU (he’s working the noon U game with David Pollack).  Another change of interest for SEC fans is the new primetime team for that league on ESPNU.  Clay Matvick and Herm Edwards will replace Eric Collins and Brock Huard.  Edwards may be a San Diego State alum, but he strikes me as a natural pick to analyze SEC action, as teams in that conference definitely play to win the game.

As mentioned earlier, Huard is working west coast games this season, while Collins has apparently moved to the Big 10 Network.  If I see a release listing announcers for the BTN/CBS College Sports/etc., I’ll post it here; the other BTN announcing news of note I’ve seen suggests that Tom Hart will be joining that network.

Edit (8/25/10) — Here is the BTN release, with Hart and Collins listed as announcers:  Link

Another non-ESPN announcing note:  The ACC game of the week, produced by Raycom, will have a new analyst this year, with David Archer replacing Rick “Doc” Walker.  This, if not a national tragedy, is at least a regional outrage.  I need to know which ACC players are actually cyborgs.

— Anish Shroff will take over from Charlie Neal as the play-by-play man for ESPNU’s Thursday night games.  Luckily, CitiField will not host a football game this season.

— Joe Tessitore will call the Friday night ESPN2 games with Rod Gilmore again, but Tessitore (who I find enjoyably bombastic) will also be the play-by-play voice for the ESPN-3D games, which will feature separate production teams for “regular” and 3D broadcasts.  He’ll work with new analyst Tim Brown and sideline reporter Ray Bentley (who had worked with Pam Ward for the last three seasons).

— The noon ESPN/ESPN2 games will each have Grieses in the booth.  Bob Griese returns with Chris Spielman and Dave Pasch on ESPN, while the ESPN2 game will feature Brian Griese (who had a promising debut last year) with play-by-play man Bob Wischusen.

Pasch and Wischusen are both guys who could/should work higher-profile games, but each is a radio announcer for an NFL team (the Cardinals for Pasch, the Jets for Wischusen) and are basically limited to early-afternoon Saturday games on ESPN.

— Ron Franklin, who was planning on retiring, is back and working again with Ed Cunningham.  I hope that team gets some heavy-duty games this year.

Getting closer to kickoff…

Bulldogs show some bite, and just in time

The Citadel 38, Furman 28.  Out of the ashes…

The Bulldogs had managed to put together two of the worst performances by the football team in quite some time, so expectations were low heading into the battle with Furman.  With Bart Blanchard hobbled by a toe injury, all the quarterback snaps were taken by redshirt freshman Miguel Starks.  He proved more than ready for the challenge, much to the chagrin of a Paladin defense that never really figured out a way to stop him (other than forcing fumbles — more on that later).

Also up to the challenge this week were offensive coordinator Dave Cecchini and head coach Kevin Higgins, who deserve some praise after drawing criticism for the playcalling in some previous games (particularly the Western Carolina contest).  With Starks in the game, the run/pass ratio changed markedly.  Going into the Furman game, here were the relevant numbers for the season:

  • Rush attempts — 184 (677 yards)
  • Pass attempts — 181 (1020 yards)

There was balance, to be sure, but not a lot of success, as the Bulldogs were averaging just 3.68 yards per carry and only 5.64 yards per pass attempt.  Then came the Furman game:

  • Rush attempts — 49 (296 yards)
  • Pass attempts — 19 (183 yards)

The Bulldogs averaged 6.04 yards per rush against the Paladins and 9.63 yards per pass attempt.  You can win a lot of games averaging six yards per carry and nine yards for every pass thrown.

Starks was the headliner, but Van Dyke Jones appears to be the solution at running back, based on this game as well as the Appalachian State contest.  He looked very good teaming up with Starks on the various read-option plays.  He picks up tough yards, and he’s got the potential to break long runs (as the Mountaineers’ defense can attest).

The offensive line had its best game of the year, by far.  There was some discussion about fundamentals and correcting mistakes and such, but ultimately it seemed to me that the linemen much preferred the aggressive, run-oriented approach the Bulldogs had on Saturday to the usual pass-to-set-up-run attack.  It’s a cliché, but I think the guys liked the “hit ’em in the mouth” strategy.  I know a lot of older alumni appreciated it.

It wasn’t just a run-run-pass scenario, either.  Nine of Starks’ nineteen pass attempts came on first down (he threw on first down a little over 25% of the time, enough to keep the Paladins honest).  On third and long, The Citadel actually ran the ball five out of seven times.  The Bulldogs were totally committed to the run on third and short/medium, rushing on all five of those occasions.  Conversely, on four second-and-short plays The Citadel threw twice.  It was a nice mix.

Starks threw six passes in each of the first three quarters (one pass in the third quarter was wiped out by a penalty).  In the fourth, with the Bulldogs protecting a double-digit lead, he would throw only three times (a flag erasing one attempt).  The drive that put the game away featured no passes, with Starks scoring the clinching TD on a 23-yard run.

The other noticeable thing about the passing game was that Starks threw exclusively short and intermediate passes in the first half, but started to go deep in the third quarter.  On consecutive pass attempts in that quarter, he threw a slant pass for 20 yards, followed by a 28-yard TD toss on a post route (both to Scott Harward), a 38-yard post would-be TD to Andre Roberts wiped out by a holding penalty, a 35-yard pass to Roberts (sensational catch by Andre), and an incomplete post pass to Alex Sellars (which would have resulted in a 45-yard TD if the connection had been made).

Starks’ touch on his passes was generally good, and his receivers helped him on the few occasions where he was off target.  There were two legitimately outstanding catches, one by Kevin Hardy (arguably the best reception Hardy has made for the Bulldogs to date) and Roberts’ scintillating effort in the third quarter, which got the Bulldogs out of a field position hole (moving the ball from the 12 to the 47).  Only one pass all day was dropped.

Of course, it’s easier to call plays when your team leads the entire game, as was the case on Saturday for The Citadel.  After a very impressive opening drive for a TD, the Bulldogs took advantage of an unintentional onside kick (the wind becoming a temporary 12th man) to grab a 14-0 lead before Furman could run a play on offense.

This would ultimately lead to a rather unusual situation, as despite scoring 28 points in the game Furman’s offense never had the ball with less than a 10-point deficit facing it.  In other words, at no point in the game were the Paladins within one drive of tying the game or taking the lead.  Furman would get within 3 points at 24-21 early in the third quarter, but The Citadel scored a TD on its next drive, stretching the lead back to 10, and the Paladins could draw no closer.

Furman’s failures were mostly on defense, but Paladins QB Jordan Sorrells will surely want to forget the two interceptions he threw, both in the end zone, and both with Furman trailing 31-21.

The first of the two was particularly bad, as on first-and-ten at the Bulldog 26 he threw the ball late over the deep middle of the field and into the wind, while rolling out in the opposite direction, and with three defenders in the vicinity.  Calling that pass “ill-advised” doesn’t really do it justice.  I thought he played fairly well other than that, though.  It’s hard to lead a comeback when you trail the entire game by double digits.

It wasn’t all great for The Citadel, though.  The defense continued to struggle with preventing long drives.  Furman converted six out of eleven third down attempts, and was 3-for-3 on 4th down tries.  The Paladins did not punt until the third quarter.  Truthfully, the defense has not had a solid game all season, and I am including the Princeton game in that analysis, despite the Bulldogs allowing just seven points, because the Tigers moved the ball fairly well for a significant portion of that game (and also because Princeton is just not a very good team this year).

Looking back, an argument could be made that the defense’s most satisfactory performance came in the season opener against North Carolina.

Against the Paladins, the Bulldogs only had one sack, although Furman is not a team prone to giving up sacks.  What the defense did do well was create some critical turnovers; in previous games those two end-zone picks weren’t happening.

It was a good thing the defense did get those turnovers and make those stops, as Starks lost two fumbles in the second half (after fumbling twice earlier without punishment).  On that issue, I was struck by some comments made by Higgins in The Post and Courier:

On the fumbles, Higgins said, “We knew the first time he stepped on campus that was going to be a challenge. We watched him as a freshman on the scout team and said, that will be a challenge. But until you actually get under fire, it takes a while to understand that.

This sounds a little like the Tiki Barber situation with the New York Giants, when he was alternating between big runs and big fumbles (sometimes on the same play).  Maybe the Bulldog staff should get Tom Coughlin on the phone…

The Citadel is going to have to live with some fumbling, it appears.  Other teams are going to make a concerted effort to try to strip Starks of the ball, which may lead to more fumbling, but which may also lead to bigger plays by Starks as players go for the ball rather than the tackle.  Starks isn’t going to go down just by being hit; he has to be wrapped up, and if other teams don’t realize this now they will realize it soon enough.

I think that with Starks at QB, Bulldog fans are going to have more than the usual number of “no no yes yes!” and “yes yes oh no” moments, at least in the near future.

As disappointing as the Bulldogs’ lost weekends at Elon and Cullowhee were — and those were VERY disappointing results —  it’s good to see the team (and coaches) get up off the canvas and come out fighting.  To do so against Furman makes it even better.  Now it’s time to focus on Samford, which shouldn’t be too difficult, given last year’s mauling.  It’s about time to re-buckle those chinstraps.

Football, Game 7: The Citadel vs. Furman

If you looked at the overall statistics for last year’s Bulldogs-Paladins game, you might think it had been a competitive game.  It wasn’t.  Furman led at one point by 28 points and scored on every one of its possessions in the first three quarters.

Furman alternated between delayed handoffs and intermediate pass routes, picking up first downs with ease (the Paladins had 22 first downs, only four of which came after a third-down conversion).  It was a lot like the Elon game two weeks ago, only The Citadel actually scored on its first two possessions against Furman (both field goals).

Allowing Furman those kinds of long scoring drives can’t happen on Saturday if the Bulldogs expect to win, but The Citadel’s defense has struggled to get off the field all season, allowing a third-down conversion rate of 51% and failing to create negative plays (only six sacks, and not enough turnovers).  The Bulldogs have only 24 tackles for loss so far this year; opponents have 43.

The Citadel desperately needs to get Andre Roberts more involved, and in a position to make big plays.  After all, he is the Bulldogs’ best player.  He did catch 9 passes against Western Carolina (for 78 yards and a TD), but in three conference games Roberts has only 16 catches for 138 total yards and that one TD.

Roberts lit it up against Presbyterian (12 catches, 184 yards, four touchdowns), but I can guarantee you Furman isn’t going to defend him like the Blue Hose did.  Just the opposite, probably.  The Paladins are well aware of how dangerous he can be; in three career games against Furman, Roberts has 28 receptions for 342 yards.

To have a chance of winning on Saturday, The Citadel needs more of the same from Roberts.  Whether the offense is capable of giving him that opportunity is open to question.

Furman’s defense, like The Citadel’s, has struggled on third downs; like the Bulldogs, the Paladins are allowing a 51% conversion rate.  Both defenses are allowing an average of right around 400 total yards per game.  Furman only has five sacks all season (but on offense, the Paladins have allowed just four).

It would seem that The Citadel might be able to move the ball on the Paladins, given those numbers.  However, with uncertainty at quarterback, a lack of a consistent ground game, and the absence of a secondary receiving threat, the Bulldogs may not be able to take advantage of that opportunity.  It’s hard to imagine the team that could only put up 10 points against Western Carolina doing much damage offensively against Furman (which defeated the Catamounts in Cullowhee 33-14).

The revolving door at running back has undoubtably resulted in some of the problems the Bulldogs have had running the ball, but the o-line hasn’t held up its end of the bargain either.  The failure of the offensive line to control the line of scrimmage in most of the games played thus far is arguably the most disappointing part of the team’s play to date.

One of the things that will be interesting to follow over the next three weeks is the attendance at Johnson Hagood Stadium.  The last two weeks have not exactly been helpful in terms of generating interest in the team.

Going back to last season, attendance for the Parents’ Day game against Elon was 12,582.  That was very disappointing for a Parents’ Day weekend crowd, even with the weather not being ideal.

Looking at various factors that could affect attendance on Saturday, there is a 30% chance of rain in Charleston by gametime.  Also, Clemson plays on TV at 3:30 pm ET (at Miami), and South Carolina hosts Vanderbilt (also on TV) at night.  Other than that, though, the college football slate on TV is not particularly compelling (and neither of those games is a must-see).

The last time the Bulldogs hosted Furman, it was also Parents’ Day, and 16,272 people showed up to watch one of the wilder games (if not the wildest) in the history of the series.  However, that was a winning Bulldog team playing on a day featuring good weather.

So, which direction will Saturday’s game take, attendance-wise?  I could make a pretty good guess.  What’s more, it’s the first of three consecutive football weekends at Johnson Hagood, and if the Bulldogs don’t make a good account of themselves against the Paladins, that is likely to be reflected in how many people show up to watch the Samford and Wofford games (with the latter being Homecoming).

I’ve written before about attendance, but the biggest factor when it comes to getting people to enter the stadium (as opposed to either not making the trip or just tailgating, which is another subject entirely) is winning.  The Citadel isn’t winning games right now, and attendance is likely to suffer as a result.

Bart Blanchard may or may not play against Furman, and Miguel Starks is not 100% healthy either.  Starks is likely to see much, if not all, of the playing time at quarterback, but if both Blanchard and Starks are unable to play, The Citadel’s quarterback will be 5’11”, 185 lb. Tommy Edwards, a freshman walkon from Los Angeles.

Edwards went to Ulysses S. Grant High School (hey, at least he didn’t go to William T. Sherman High School).  Notable alums of Grant High include Tom Selleck, Mickey Dolenz, Mitch Gaylord, Gilbert “Agent Zero” Arenas, three members of the pop/rock group Toto, TV theme kingpin Mike Post, and the late Rod Beck.  Apparently there haven’t been any notable football players to have come from Grant High, though, so Edwards has a chance to break new ground in that respect.

No offense to Edwards, but I really hope he’s not a featured player on Saturday.

The Citadel can beat Furman on Saturday, although the last two weeks haven’t inspired confidence in that possibility coming to pass.  The Paladins are a good team, but not without flaws.  The Citadel’s game against Appalachian State showed what the team is capable of doing on a given day, and after two lost weekends in North Carolina, playing at home will surely be beneficial to the Bulldogs.

It’s going to be a big test for the coaching staff.  Kevin Higgins and company have something to prove, too.

The team has to be ready to play from the opening kickoff.  I feel kind of dumb just writing that, but then again, I felt kind of dumb watching the Elon game.  If the Bulldogs’ energy isn’t there from the very start, it’s going to be a very long day for The Citadel.

The playcalling has to get better.  If Blanchard and Starks both play, the coaches can’t telegraph whether the play is a run or pass just by virtue of who is taking the snap from center.  Starks, in particular, has to throw the ball down the field, and he’s got to look for Roberts.

The coaches must find a way for the defense to stop the Paladins on third down (after making sure there is a third down in the first place).  Turnovers, tackles for loss, etc. are musts, not just for the yardage/field position, but to pump up the entire team, along with the crowd.

Of course, an unexpected win by the Bulldogs would really pump up the crowd…

Following up a debacle with a disaster

The Citadel lost to Western Carolina last Saturday, a horrific, potentially season-tanking loss if there ever was one.  I was trying to think of the last time the Bulldogs played a game like that, and then realized it had happened just last season…only The Citadel actually managed to win that contest.

Last year for Homecoming the Bulldogs entertained a UT-Chattanooga squad with a 1-9 record and a lame-duck coach.  The Mocs seemed a good bet to mail it in, but The Citadel was unable to hold onto a 14-0 lead and with less than two minutes remaining trailed UTC 21-17.  That’s when Andre Roberts returned a punt 43 yards for a touchdown to win the game.

In Saturday’s contest, Western Carolina lined up to punt with less than two minutes to play.  Roberts was ready for another potential game-winning return, but alas, the canny Catamount punter avoided punting to Roberts by kicking the ball off one of his own players, an upback trying to block for him.

Sure, that meant The Citadel got possession of the ball at the WCU 34-yard-line, but the way things were going the Bulldogs might have had a better chance of scoring a TD on special teams than on offense.  As it happened, The Citadel managed to drive to the Catamount 15 but no further.

Losing to teams you are supposed to beat is a problem, not least because for The Citadel, there aren’t too many of those types of teams on the schedule, especially in conference play.  The Bulldogs have to be ready to play 60 minutes of solid football against any opponent, because The Citadel doesn’t have the talent level to just cruise past an overmatched team.

As a former coach of The Citadel once said, “”We can lose to anybody.”  Of course, he said that after one of his (and the school’s) greatest victories, in any sport, and it was a reference to playing “loose” and without fear.  Sometimes I wonder if in games like on Saturday, or UT-Chattanooga last season, or Charleston Southern in 2006, the team plays not to lose instead of playing to win.

So in the last two weeks, The Citadel has played two of its worst games in the Kevin Higgins era.  Higgins was unable to attend Monday’s press luncheon, as he was attending the funeral for Bulldog DB Rod Harland’s father.  He was replaced for the day by defensive coordinator Isaac Collins and offensive coordinator Dave Cecchini.

I read Jeff Hartsell’s notes from the luncheon and listened to parts of it made available on The Citadel Sports Network.  Both Collins and Cecchini tried to explain why the Bulldogs were struggling, and each made some good points.  I have to take issue with one comment made by Collins, though:

I think Elon was unfortunate, we fell behind early. But as I tell people, for a long time, that game was 23-0. So it wasn’t out of hand until later on in the fourth quarter.

Well, the game wasn’t really 23-0 “for a long time”.  Elon kicked a field goal (after a drive that lasted more than eight minutes) to take a 23-0 lead in the second quarter.

After The Citadel went three-and-out (again), the Phoenix drove down the field again, taking almost six minutes off the clock, and eventually kicked another field goal near the end of the half.  Elon led 26-0 at intermission.  The Phoenix then scored on its opening drive of the third quarter.  In terms of game time, Elon led 23-0 for about eight minutes.

Collins probably just got the score wrong when he was talking, which is understandable, but the real issue is that it doesn’t matter if it was 23-0 or 29-0 when the Bulldogs finally forced a punt.  It’s way, way too late at that point; the game is (and was) essentially over.  I realize he was trying to look at positives for his defense, but to me there were no positives in the Elon game.  None.

There weren’t any positives against Western Carolina, either.

Up next is Furman, on a Parents’ Day Saturday at Johnson Hagood Stadium.  I’ll write about that game in another post.

Football, Game 6: The Citadel vs. Western Carolina

Like a lot of other college football fans, I’ve been following the current situation with Bobby Bowden and Florida State with some interest, wondering how it will end.  At this point, it does not look like it will end well, because it’s obvious that A) Bowden clearly does not want to retire, and B) FSU higher-ups desperately want him to do so. 

Bowden is Florida State football, at least as we know it today.  How do you cast off a legend?  It’s not easy.  It’s something Western Carolina had to do 20 years ago, though, under circumstances much more tragic.

Bob Waters was a star quarterback at Presbyterian in the late 1950s who wound up playing for five years for the San Francisco 49ers.  He started several games at quarterback in 1961 in Red Hickey’s then-novel “shotgun” offense. 

After three years as a college assistant coach (at PC and Stanford), Waters would become the head coach at Western Carolina in 1969.  In 20 seasons in Cullowhee, he would not only become the Catamounts’ winningest coach, he would win more games than all his predecessors did combined.  Waters is the only coach in the history of the program to finish his career at the school with a winning record.

Western Carolina would make the Division II playoffs in 1974, a prelude to joining the Southern Conference (and Division I) in 1976.  Waters was a key part of the move up the NCAA ladder, as he by this time was also director of athletics at WCU.  In 1983 Waters and the Catamounts would win 11 games and go all the way to the I-AA championship game (played at Johnson Hagood Stadium!), losing in the final to Southern Illinois. 

Then in 1985, Waters was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).  He would lead the Catamounts to a 4-6-1 record that year; the following season WCU would go 6-5.  

In April of 1987 he would be profiled in Sports Illustrated.  The piece noted that Waters was one of three players from the 1965 49ers squad to suffer from ALS, a coincidence (or perhaps not a coincidence) that drew considerable scrutiny. 

In 1987, the Catamounts would slip to 4-7, and then in 1988 WCU would lose its last five games and finish 2-9, the worst season of Waters’ career.  It would also be the last season of his career.

During spring practice in 1989, Waters was “reassigned” by Western Carolina administrators, a decision made more difficult because Waters had wanted one more year.  He didn’t get it.  Waters died in late May of that year.

That had to have been a very trying time for the WCU administration, which was faced with trying to decide how best to ease the best coach it ever had out of the position he had held for so long.  Waters had made WCU football a success, but it appeared that success was drifting away as Waters’ body continued to fail him.  He wouldn’t quit, so he was removed.

Then the folks at WCU made a mistake, bringing in an “outsider”, Dale Strahm, to coach the team.  Strahm was in Cullowhee for one year, and then decided to get out of town following a 3-7-1 season.  Four coaches have followed, none establishing any pattern of success. 

Steve Hodgin, who had been an assistant at the school for seven years prior to becoming head coach, did have a respectable run, with three straight winning seasons in the mid-1990s, but after a 1-7 SoCon record in 1996, he was done.  Bill Bleil was actually 7-4 in his fifth season in Cullowhee, but was then fired after a series of off-the-field problems. Kent Briggs spent six seasons at WCU; he would finish his career at the school with 15 consecutive conference losses.

The current coach of the Catamounts is Dennis Wagner.  WCU was 3-9 in his first season; this year, the Catamounts are 0-5 entering Saturday afternoon’s contest.

Western Carolina is 79-135 since the reassignment of Bob Waters.  Replacing a legend is not easy.

It’s also not easy to win while dealing with budget restraints, a historic problem at Western Carolina.  WCU’s budget for athletics is the league’s smallest (just under $8.5 million in FY2008).  Western Carolina has fewer athletic donors than any school in the league save UT-Chattanooga (The Citadel has more than seven times as many boosters as does WCU). 

The school is situated in a population area that is one of the league’s smallest (Elon, by comparison, has a population base surrounding it three times as large), which perhaps partly explains the less-than-stellar home attendance (less than 7,000 per game last season).  Western Carolina also does not have a large local corporate presence from which to solicit donations, and the general population is not particularly affluent (average household income:  just over $34,000).    

It’s a tough sell.

Tangent:  Appalachian State and Western Carolina are rivals, or at least are supposed to be rivals.  The two schools have met on the gridiron 73 times, which means they’ve met almost every year WCU has had a football program.  App State leads the series, 54-18-1.  It has to be tough when your biggest game of the year is against a team that has beaten you 75% of the time.  The Mountaineers have won 22 of the last 24 meetings.

Western Carolina’s cumulative statistics in the current campaign are not pretty, which is not surprising for an 0-5 team.  Opponents are outscoring the Catamounts 30 to 8; have more than twice as many first downs; have intercepted WCU passers seven times (with the Catamounts yet to pick off a pass on defense); and are averaging almost twice as many yards of total offense.

In five games, Western has a total of 3 first-half points.  WCU has scored 4 touchdowns in those five games.

In short, this is a game The Citadel should win.  Of course, that was the feeling before the 43-7 embarassment at Elon.  Now, will doubt creep in?  Kevin Higgins has to convince his team it isn’t as bad as last week’s game and prepare them to fight a desperate team which needs a victory just as badly (if not more so) as do the Bulldogs.  Other potential x-factors:  Whitmire Stadium’s playing surface is artificial turf, and the game is WCU’s Homecoming. 

The Citadel has defeated Western Carolina five times in a row, and historically has had more success against the Catamounts than any other Southern Conference school (19-13-1).  I am hopeful that both of those trends will continue on Saturday.  However, if they don’t, The Citadel may be in for a very long season.

Football, Game 4: The Citadel vs. Appalachian State

It’s time for the games that matter to begin.  League play, SoCon style.  First up for the Bulldogs:  Appalachian State, winner of three of the last four FCS championships and four-time defending conference champs.  Basically, the league opener is as big a challenge as The Citadel will have for the rest of the season.

This will be the 38th clash on the gridiron between the two schools.  Appy leads the all-time series 26-11; the Mountaineers are 10-8 in 18 previous trips to Johnson Hagood Stadium.    Appalachian has won 14 of the last 15 games in the series, with the one Bulldog victory coming in 2003, shortly before the Mountaineers began their run of conference and national titles.

That 2003 victory (24-21) is one of only two times in that 15-game stretch in which The Citadel held Appalachian State to fewer than 25 points; the other exception came in 2001, when the Mountaineers slipped past the Bulldogs 8-6.  In the thirteen other games played since 1994, Appalachian State has averaged 41.5 points per game.  The last four meetings have resulted in Appy point totals of 45, 42, 45, and 47.

Perhaps the most curious thing about the history of the series between the two schools is that prior to 1972, there was no history.  The Citadel and Appalachian State had never played each other in football until Appy joined the Southern Conference in 1971.  The two schools then began the series in 1972, and have met every year since.

The never-and-then-always aspect of the series is not particularly surprising when juxtaposed against the backdrop of the Southern Conference, a way station of a league since its founding in 1921.  Schools have come and gone, and sometimes come back (hello again, Davidson).  The conference has routinely featured schools that in many cases don’t have much in common.  The Citadel and Appalachian State, fellow members of the SoCon for four decades, make for a good example of this phenomenon.

Appalachian State University has origins dating back to 1899, and would eventually become a four-year college in 1929.  It was at that time a teachers’ college, designed to educate future instructors in northwest North Carolina.  By the late 1920s the school was also fielding a football team and playing similar two- and four-year institutions like High Point and Lenoir-Rhyne.

In the 1950s the school began to become more of a regional institution, with multiple degree programs.  By the 1970s the undergraduate enrollment had increased to over 9,000 (today it has 14,500 undergrad students).  As the school increased in size, the department of athletics left the Division II Carolinas Conference and moved up to Division I, joining the Southern Conference (essentially replacing George Washington, which had left the SoCon in 1970).

Appalachian State’s institutional history is not unlike that of fellow conference member Georgia Southern.  The two schools were both originally founded to educate teachers.  Appalachian State’s undergraduate enrollment began to increase before Georgia Southern’s did, and as a result Appy has about 20,000 more living alumni (95,000 to 75,000).  The two schools have the largest alumni bases in the SoCon (by a considerable margin) and also enroll the most students (ditto).

Georgia Southern’s fan base includes a sizable (and vocal) contingent of supporters who want the school to move to FBS status in football.  I wrote about this a few weeks ago; it doesn’t seem like a particularly good idea to me, and the GSU administration appears to oppose making the move.

Appalachian State, on the other hand, does not seem to have a significant (or at least loud) base of fans wanting to test the FBS waters.  This is probably wise.  While Appy does have the largest alumni base in the SoCon, it would not compare well to most FBS schools, at least in the southeast.  Only one of the ACC/SEC schools (Wake Forest) has a smaller alumni base, and eight of the twelve C-USA schools have more living alums.

The population base around the school isn’t that large, and the area’s average household income is less than that of the markets for every school in the Southern Conference except Georgia Southern.

My sense is that most Appy fans are very happy with their football program’s position in the NCAA universe right now.  Given the past two decades, who can blame them?

Jerry Moore has been the coach of the Mountaineers for the past 21 seasons (counting this one), but the run of success Appy has been on really began with the previous coach, Sparky Woods.  Woods would preside over the Mountaineers’ first two SoCon titles (in 1986 and 1987).  He was also the coach when Appalachian State started beating The Citadel on a regular basis; after losing his first game against the Bulldogs, Woods won four straight games in the series to close out his career in Boone.

Of course, as all fans of The Citadel know, Woods faced the Bulldogs on one other occasion as a head coach, in 1990.  Woods had taken the South Carolina job following the death of Joe Morrison.  In his second year in Columbia, the Gamecocks would lose to The Citadel 38-35.  I will never forget watching his coach’s show the next day; he looked like he had been embalmed.  Woods is now the head coach of VMI; he will get another crack at the Bulldogs next season.

Moore had once been the head coach of North Texas (where his record was mediocre) and Texas Tech (where his record was abysmal).  After two years out of coaching, he got a break when Ken Hatfield invited him to join the coaching staff at Arkansas, first on a volunteer basis and then as a salaried assistant.  Moore spent five years in Fayetteville before being offered the job in Boone after Woods left.  He decided to take another shot at being a head coach.  It would prove to be a good move for him and for Appalachian State’s football program.

Moore would win a SoCon title of his own at Appy in 1991, but then hit a brief rough patch that included his only losing season with the Mountaineers in 1993.  During that stretch Appalachian State would lose three straight games to The Citadel (which was fielding some of its best teams at the time, including the 1992 SoCon championship squad).

That is the only period in the series to date in which The Citadel has won three consecutive games.  In the 1992 season, the Bulldogs beat the Mountaineers in Boone 25-0, one of only three victories by The Citadel in Boone and the only time Appalachian State has ever been shut out by The Citadel.

  • October 3rd, Note Number 1:  That 1992 game is also the only time the two schools have met on October 3rd — that is, until this Saturday.  Hmm…
  • October 3rd, Note Number 2:  On October 3rd, 1970, Appalachian State hosted Elon in the first football game in the Carolinas to be contested on artificial turf.

Moore’s Mountaineers would finish 4th in the league in 1993.  That season and the 1996 campaign are the only two seasons during Moore’s tenure in which Appy has finished lower than third place in the conference (and in between the Mountaineers would win another league title in 1995).  Since 1997, Appalachian State has five first-place finishes (two of those were shared titles), six second place finishes, and one third-place finish (in 2004).

After that third-place finish in 2004, the Mountaineers would win three straight FCS titles.  Breaking through in the postseason had proven to be very difficult for Appy, which would finally win the national championship in its 13th appearance in the I-AA playoffs.

The Mountaineers had never managed to get past the semifinals prior to 2005, but after getting by Furman in the semis, Appalachian State defeated Northern Iowa for the first of its three national crowns.  The change in postseason fortunes was attributed in part to a change in offensive philosophy, from a power-I formation to a spread look.

Last season Appalachian State averaged 37.3 points per game and 463.6 yards of total offense per game.  Its defense was decent but not spectacular (allowing 21.6 PPG and 334 yards per contest).  Appalachian committed 28 turnovers on offense, with 18 of those being lost fumbles (Appy recovered 12 of its own fumbles, so it put the ball on the ground 30 times in all in 13 games).

The Mountaineer defense intercepted 19 passes and recovered 8 fumbles, so Appalachian State had a turnover margin for the season of -1.  The fact that the Mountaineers could win the SoCon despite a negative turnover margin is a testament to just how explosive on offense Appy really was (averaging almost seven yards per play).

Appalachian State is 1-2 so far this season, losing to East Carolina 29-24 (after trailing 29-7, with its backup quarterback) and McNeese State 40-35 (with McNeese scoring five points in the final four seconds).  In its SoCon opener, Appy beat Samford 20-7, scoring the first 20 points of the game and keeping the Birmingham Bulldogs off the scoreboard until midway through the fourth quarter.  The games against McNeese State and Samford were played in Boone, with Appalachian State traveling to Greenville, NC, for the game against ECU.

(Incidentally, despite losing to the Pirates, the Mountaineers still lead the all-time series between the two schools, 19-11, a factoid that I found a little surprising.  Most of those wins over ECU came during the 1930s and mid-to-late 1950s.)

Appalachian State played East Carolina without its starting quarterback, Armanti Edwards, who was still recovering from a much-chronicled attack by a lawnmower.  His backup, Travaris Cadet, acquitted himself fairly well against the Pirates in the loss.  Edwards was back against McNeese State and so was the Appy offense (493 total yards), but the Mountaineer defense couldn’t contain the Cowboys’ offense (522 total yards), and Appy eventually lost a last-team-with-the-ball-wins type of shootout.

The game against Samford was played in a steady downpour, which apparently favored the defenses.  The Mountaineer D rose to the occasion and limited Samford to 188 yards of total offense (Appy’s O had 366 total yards).

For The Citadel to pull the upset on Saturday, it needs to control Armanti Edwards.  Not stop him, but control him.  In his three previous games against the Bulldogs, he has been completely uncontrollable, rolling up 317.7 yards per game of total offense; Edwards has been responsible for 12 TDs in the three contests.  That can’t happen again if The Citadel has any hope of winning the game.

Whether the Bulldogs are capable defensively of slowing down Edwards and company is debatable.  The results from the game against Presbyterian were not encouraging in this respect.  Previously run-challenged PC piled up 200+ yards rushing against The Citadel.  Appalachian State could have a field day.

On the bright side, I think The Citadel’s offense is capable of moving the ball against a good but not great Mountaineer defense.  The keys will be to A) control the ball, keeping Edwards and his friends off the field as much as possible, and B) put points on the board when in scoring position.  It will be important to score touchdowns in the “red zone” on Saturday.  Of course, you could say that about any Saturday.

The Citadel’s offensive line must protect Bart Blanchard.  Appalachian State had three sacks against Samford (after not having any in its first two games).  This is also a game that, for the Bulldogs to prevail, will likely require a special performance by Andre Roberts.  He’s certainly up to the challenge.

The Bulldogs cannot afford major special teams snafus.  Missing PATs and other misadventures in the kicking game will be fatal against a team like Appalachian State, which can and almost certainly will take advantage of any mistake.

I think this will be a fairly high-scoring game.  For The Citadel to win, I think the offense/special teams must score at least 30 points, because unless the defense creates a multitude of Appy turnovers, I believe the Mountaineers are going to score at a clip similar to what they have done in recent meetings.  It may well be that 30 points will not be enough for the Bulldogs.  Would 40 be enough?

I’m not overly optimistic about The Citadel’s chances on Saturday afternoon.  However, I’ll be there, part of what (if the weather holds up) promises to be a good crowd, cheering on the Bulldogs and hoping for the best.  They’ve got a chance against the Mountaineers.  I’m not sure you could have said that in the last few meetings.