2011 Football Game 10: The Citadel vs. Samford

The Citadel vs. Samford, to be played at historic Johnson Hagood Stadium, with kickoff at 3:00 pm ET on Saturday, November 12.  The contest will be televised on the SoCon Network, with play-by-play by Darren Goldwater (formerly the “Voice of the Bulldogs”) and analysis by Doug Chapman. It is also available via the ESPN3.com platform. The game can be heard on radio via The Citadel Sports Network, with current “Voice of the Bulldogs” Danny Reed calling the action alongside analyst Walt Nadzak

This is another “combo” post, with a brief review of the Georgia Southern game and a preview of the Samford contest.

Georgia Southern 14, The Citadel 12.

There isn’t a whole lot to add to what has already been said and written about the game. I’ll just make a few points:

— In my preview of the game I devoted the better part of two paragraphs to Brent Russell, Georgia Southern’s star nosetackle. I expected him to be a major factor in the game, so news that he wasn’t going to play gave me hope that the Bulldogs could establish themselves offensively. I thought he was that important, and I think the way the game went bore that out. The Citadel rushed for a respectable 239 yards, averaging 4.6 yards per carry.

Russell’s absence surely had an impact on the Bulldogs’ ability to gain yards up the middle, as Darien Robinson had an outstanding afternoon, rushing for 92 yards and a TD on only nine carries. Good teams take advantage of opportunities, and I felt in this respect The Citadel did just that.

— While there was some focus on the missed field goal at the end of the game, that wasn’t what bothered me (especially with the wind issues). The two blocked PATs were what bothered me. It is unacceptable to have one PAT blocked in a game, much less two. Field goals are going to be missed from time to time, but PATs should be all but automatic.

The Citadel has done a lot of good things in the area of special teams this season, most notably the Bulldogs’ punt-blocking exploits. Cass Couey has had a fine year, and even the kick return teams have improved over the last three games (including Kevin Hardy’s tone-setting 50-yard return to open up the festivities in Statesboro).

The Bulldogs are still struggling with kick coverage and placekicking, however, and that isn’t all on the kickers, not by a long shot. Those struggles are also, unfortunately, not a one-year aberration. Thinking about this game, I remembered that I had written about another game against Georgia Southern that got away from The Citadel three years ago. That one also came down to placekicking problems.

The Citadel does not have much margin for error when playing football in the Southern Conference. It cannot afford to lose a game or two each season because of a recurring problem that should be correctable.

I’m not saying it’s easy, because it’s not. Alabama probably just lost a shot at making the BCS title game because Nick Saban didn’t have a placekicker on the roster capable of making long field goals under pressure — and that’s at tradition-rich Alabama, with 85 scholarships at its disposal (not even taking oversigning into account). Bobby Bowden and Florida State lost a couple of mythical crowns in the early 1990s because of an unreliable kicking game.

Despite those examples, your typical 50-year-old male thinks he can roll out of bed and make a 35-yard field goal. That’s just the way the position (and overall placekicking unit) is perceived.

— Okay, now for something tangentially related, but still worth following (at least, I think so)…

Some fans of the Bulldogs may remember that The Post and Courier elected not to send a beat writer for The Citadel’s game at Western Carolina three weeks ago. This was the first time in recent memory that the newspaper had not covered a SoCon football game involving The Citadel. The decision was reportedly not made by the sports department.

At the time, I wrote:

Obviously these are tough times for the newspaper business, so it’s not shocking the paper would cut an occasional corner.  This time it came at the expense of coverage for The Citadel’s football team, which should be a concern for any fan of the military college.

I’m hopeful it was just a one-time thing…

It appears to have been just that, for now. Jeff Hartsell was in Statesboro on Saturday.

The reason I am bringing this up again is that I noticed The Post and Courier sent two reporters to Fayetteville, Arkansas, to cover the South Carolina-Arkansas game. Both Gamecocks beat writer Darryl Slater (a recent hire by the paper) and general sports columnist Gene Sapakoff were at that contest.

It occurs to me that Cullowhee is a lot closer to Charleston than Fayetteville…

It probably doesn’t mean anything. It’s just something to watch.

Pat Sullivan knew he had to make some changes to Samford’s offense after last season, one in which a good defense could not make up for a less than dynamic offense. In 2010, the Birmingham Bulldogs averaged just over 10 points per game at home and finished 4-7 (despite an upset over Georgia Southern). The final game of the season was a 13-12 home loss to The Citadel.

Sullivan brought in several new coaches, with the key hire being 28-year-old Rhett Lashlee, a protege of Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn. Lashlee has installed the hurry-up/spread system run by Malzahn, the same offensive philosophy employed by fellow Malzahn acolyte Chad Morris of Clemson.

Thus, Samford’s meat-and-potatoes attack of years past has been replaced by an offense that spreads the field and tries to run 80 plays from scrimmage per game. It has been, for the most part, successful. Samford is averaging over 30 points per game, ranking third in the SoCon in scoring offense, total offense, and passing offense. It is also fifth in the league in rushing offense, a very respectable placement considering the three triple-option attacks in the conference tend to dominate that statistical category.

Samford has scored at least 17 points in every Southern Conference game this season, a far cry from last year. However, Sullivan’s squad has not been as strong defensively, perhaps in part because of the nature of the offense (Samford’s opponents have a time of possession advantage of close to five minutes). Samford is seventh in the league in scoring defense, next-to-last in total defense, and next-to-last in pass defense (though that is misleading, as it is second in defensive pass efficiency).

Samford has allowed at least 21 points in every SoCon game this season. The second half of games has occasionally been problematic, as the team has allowed 21 second-half points to both Furman and Wofford, and 24 to Georgia Southern.

In Samford’s five wins, the Birmingham Bulldogs have rushed for 304, 160, 181, 348 (Elon), and 303 yards. In its four losses, the rushing totals have been 61, 34 (Wofford), 84, and 92.

If that’s not a key indicator, I don’t know what is.

As far as how the Samford defense has fared against the other triple-option offenses in the league, Wofford rushed for 443 yards, while Georgia Southern’s ground attack put up 263. Both of those schools controlled the running game on both sides of the ball. I think a good goal for Triple O’Higgins would be an average of those two rush totals — 353 yards.

If you think Dustin Taliaferro has been Samford’s quarterback for a long time, you would be correct. He’s been taking snaps for Samford since 2008. The new offense seems to be to his liking (Kevin Higgins called him “much improved”). He is completing almost 62% of his passes this season, with 12 TDs against 8 interceptions. He threw three of those TDs against Furman.

Fabian Truss also had a good game against the Paladins, rushing for 136 yards. He was even better the next week against Elon, piling up 191 rushing yards in that game. Sullivan noted that Truss was hurt last week against Chattanooga, a game in which he carried the ball ten times for 46 yards. It was the fourth consecutive game in which his rush attempts from scrimmage had declined. Despite that, Truss still leads the SoCon in all-purpose yardage (he is averaging almost 30 yards per kick return).

Taliaferro’s primary receiving targets are Kelsey Pope (56 catches, five for touchdowns) and Riley Hawkins (33 receptions, two TDs). Hawkins is also Samford’s main punt returner, and he’s a very good one, leading the league in punt return average (11.7 yards). Samford has outstanding kick return teams and also has a solid placekicker in Cameron Yaw, who has made 18 of 23 field goals.

Samford will be motivated to win this game in part because a victory would clinch a winning season for the visitors from Birmingham. If Samford loses to The Citadel, it would have to win its season finale to get that elusive sixth victory. That last game, though, is at Auburn.

This is going to be a tough matchup for The Citadel. It is a winnable game, to be sure. Of course, that has been the case for the Bulldogs most of the season, which in itself is suggestive of the improvement the team has made this year.

It is also Homecoming, so a fairly sizeable crowd should be on hand. I hope that a significant portion of those in attendance actually wander into Johnson Hagood Stadium to watch the game. It should be a good one.

Congratulations to all the reunion year classes, particularly the Class of 1961, which is having its 50th-year celebration.

I’ll be at the game this Saturday. I won’t be at any of the reunions, but I’ll be in the stands, rooting on the home team. The weather forecast for Charleston is promising. I hope things are just as sunny for the Bulldogs.

Football, Game 8: The Citadel vs. Samford

I’ll just begin this post with some assorted trivia about Samford:

  • Samford was called Howard College until 1965.  At that time, the school became a university, but in an effort to avoid being mistaken for Howard University (of Washington, DC) the name was changed to Samford.
  • Samford’s law school, Cumberland, was actually purchased from Cumberland University of Tennessee in 1961, one of only two such transactions involving a law school, and the only one in which the law school moved across state lines.
  • Samford played in the first football game ever contested at Legion Field, defeating Birmingham-Southern 9-0 on November 19, 1927.  Samford also played in the first night game at Legion Field (in 1928), losing 12-7 to Spring Hill.
  • Samford’s football program wasn’t afraid to travel in the 1920s.  The Bulldogs (formerly the Baptist Tigers) played Duquesne in Pittsburgh (at Forbes Field), North Dakota in Grand Forks, and Havana National University (in Cuba).  Samford also played games in Mexico City against the National University of Mexico in 1954 and 1963.
  • Bobby Bowden is Samford’s most famous football alum, and he also coached at the school, compiling a record of 31-6 over four seasons.  His son Terry is the winningest coach at Samford, with a record of 45-23-1, including FCS playoff appearances in 1991 and 1992.  Samford advanced to the semifinals in ’91.
  • Terry Bowden had been the head coach at Salem College before getting the Samford job, and his quarterback at Salem transferred to Samford to join him.  That quarterback?  Jimbo Fisher, who would throw 34 touchdown passes in his one season at Samford as a player. 
  • Fisher remained at the school as an assistant coach until Terry Bowden was hired at Auburn following the 1992 season.  He is now, of course, the “Head Coach In Waiting” at Florida State.

This will be the third meeting between the Birmingham Bulldogs and the shako-wearing Bulldogs.  The first matchup, in 1989, was the first game played at Johnson Hagood Stadium after Hurricane Hugo blew through Charleston; I wrote about that event when I previewed last year’s game.

That meeting last season in Birmingham did not go well for The Citadel.  Samford essentially mauled the visitors, 28-10, dominating the line of scrimmage.  Samford netted 232 yards rushing.  The Citadel?  2.  Yikes.

It was a nightmarish game all the way around, and it wasn’t even Halloween.  Samford’s first touchdown drive was helped along by three major penalties from The Citadel’s defense.  Chris Evans scored that TD and one other to go along with 174 yards rushing.  Samford had more than a 2-to-1 edge in first-half time of possession. 

Samford stuck to the ground for the most part, but occasionally threw the ball, as Dustin Taliaferro was 13-19 for 117 yards and a TD. 

The starting quarterback for The Citadel in that game was Cam Turner.  Bart Blanchard also played.  Neither of those two QBs will be taking snaps on Saturday (although Turner will continue to hold on placekicks), as Miguel Starks gets the nod again following his auspicious debut as a starter against Furman.

He will face a Samford defense that is big, physical, and which ranks among the national leaders in FCS in several defensive categories.  The Birmingham Bulldogs are fourth nationally in total defense (241.6 yards per game), sixth in rushing defense (81.6 ypg), and tenth in scoring defense (allowing less than 15 points per contest).  Junior linebacker Bryce Smith (who forced a fumble in last year’s game against The Citadel) is an outstanding player who must be accounted for at all times.

Samford has allowed only four plays of 30 yards or more in seven games and has only given up seven points in the fourth quarter all season.

On offense, Samford likes to establish the run, taking advantage of a huge offensive line.  Four of the five starters weigh more than 300 pounds, with right guard Thomas Gray checking in at 6’4”, 332.  The only non-300 lb. lineman among the starters is a “true” freshman, 6’4”, 275 lb. George Allers.  I’m guessing he’s going to get even bigger.

Much of the offense goes through running back Evans, who is averaging over 92 yards per game on the ground and also leads the team in receptions, with 26.  Evans was held to 47 yards rushing (on 14 carries) in Samford’s last game, against Furman (Samford was off last week).  In that game Samford fell behind early and had to rely on its passing attack in an effort to get back into the contest.

Taliaferro has thrown four touchdown passes this season, and has also thrown five interceptions.  Samford is averaging 5.4 yards per pass, and only 3.4 yards per rush, both numbers somewhat low (and surprisingly so, in the case of the rushing average).  Samford is generally not a big-play team (only five plays of more than 31 yards so far this season), and thus needs to sustain long drives, but Pat Sullivan’s Bulldogs are only converting 35% of their third-down opportunities.

Samford’s special teams appear to be better this season.  Freshman placekicker Cameron Yaw is 8-11 on FG attempts (one of the misses was blocked by Furman at the end of the game to preserve a two-point Paladin victory).

It will be interesting to see how Miguel Starks plays after his excellent performance last week.  Samford will present a different (and more difficult) challenge than did Furman.  A key will be avoiding turnovers, particularly on The Citadel’s half of the field.  Samford is not very dynamic on offense and is probably less likely to drive down the length of the field than Furman, so not giving the folks from Birmingham good field position is important. 

Punting, in this game, may not be such a bad thing.  It’s better than fumbling.

Even in last year’s loss, Andre Roberts managed to shine as usual, catching 8 passes for 100 yards and a TD.  I think Saturday’s game will be another opportunity for #5 to demonstrate (yet again) just how special a player he is. 

On defense, the Bulldogs must stop Evans from running all over them like he did last season.  Jordan Gilmore had 13 tackles in that game, one for loss.  More tackles for loss, to put Samford in second-and-long and third-and-long situations, would be helpful (of course, you could say that every week). 

Last year The Citadel sacked Taliaferro just one time and only had two official “hurries”.  The defense created no turnovers and was only credited with one pass breakup.  That was mostly due to Samford not being in a position where it had to throw the ball, just another reason why stopping the run is a must.

This is not likely to be a high-scoring game.  I don’t know which Bulldog team is going to show up, the one that played Appalachian State and Furman, or the one that stumbled against Elon and Western Carolina. 

The game is at Johnson Hagood Stadium, and the weather is supposed to be nice (mostly sunny, high of 82).  Attendance for the Furman game was a little better than I expected, honestly…not as good as a Parents’ Day game could be, but not too bad all things considered.  That bodes well for attendance this Saturday. 

Those in the stands to watch the battle of the Bulldogs are probably going to see a very competitive game.  I think The Citadel can win this game, but I’m worried about Samford having two weeks to prepare and possibly coming out with a revised offensive game plan.  On Halloween, you always have to worry about tricks, even while you’re dreaming of the treats.  We’ll see what Pat Sullivan and company have in store for The Citadel on Saturday.