Game Review, 2016: Chattanooga

The Citadel 22, Chattanooga 14.

Links of interest:

Game story, The Post and Courier

Photo gallery, The Post and Courier

Game story, Chattanooga Times Free Press

Game analysis, Chattanooga Times Free Press

Video from WCSC-TV, including interviews with Brent Thompson, Dominique Allen, Cam Jackson, Dee Delaney, and Jonathan King

Video from WCIV-TV

Video from WCBD-TV

Postgame comments from Russ Huesman

Postgame comments from Mocs players Cedric Nettles, Nakevion Leslie, Keionta Davis, C.J. Board, and Alejandro Bennifield

Game story, Southern Pigskin

Box score

The Citadel’s post-game notes

Brent Thompson, crowdsurfer

Game highlights

I want to start by pointing out something that is obvious, but yet may go overlooked. With its victory on Saturday, The Citadel clinched a winning season. That matters.

The Bulldogs had a winning season last year too, of course. The last time The Citadel had consecutive winning seasons on the gridiron? 1991-1992.

The Citadel actually had three straight winning campaigns from 1990 to 1992, but the latter two years were the last time the Bulldogs had put together back-to-back over-.500 seasons until yesterday’s achievement.

It has been a long time coming.

From the post-game notes package:

Brent Thompson is the 1st head coach in The Citadel history to begin his career 6-0 and has tied Harry O’Brien for the most wins by a first-year coach in program history

Harry O’Brien’s six-win season came exactly 100 years ago, in 1916. That was arguably the most impressive season on the gridiron by the Bulldogs in the thirty years prior to World War II, as The Citadel finished 6-1-1, including season-closing victories over Clemson (a game played in Orangeburg and won by the Bulldogs 3-0) and South Carolina (a 20-2 shellacking in Columbia).

The stylish O’Brien was a Swarthmore graduate who also coached basketball and baseball at The Citadel. O’Brien later coached hoops at Drexel, too.

Saturday’s contest was a very well-played football game between two good teams. The Citadel won the game, and deservedly so, but there was very little that separated the Bulldogs from the Mocs.

The key to the game, in my opinion, was The Citadel’s offense converting its first ten third-down conversion attempts of the game. It was an amazing run which seemed to violate the rules of probability, and that’s before taking into consideration the fact that Chattanooga had entered the game leading the nation in defensive third-down conversion rate (22%).

It led to The Citadel’s enormous time of possession advantage (39:31 – 20:29), which resulted in Chattanooga’s high-powered offense being kept off the field for extended periods of time. That kept the Bulldogs’ defense fresh, and probably affected UTC’s rhythm on offense as well. The Mocs only ran 47 offensive plays from scrimmage, while the Bulldogs had 81 — a huge differential.

UTC had the edge in yards gained per play, 6.3 to 4.3, a statistic that is a bit deceiving. Not counting C.J. Board’s 75-yard TD reception (though obviously it very much counted in the game), Chattanooga’s average yards per play drops to 4.6.

In the second half, the Mocs ran 27 plays and gained a total of 74 yards, an average of just 2.7 yards per play.

On the first play from scrimmage for The Citadel’s offense, Dominique Allen rushed for a 15-yard gain. The Citadel would run 80 more offensive plays after that, but none of them would result in a gain as long as Allen’s run — a near-remarkable oddity.

In a way, that note serves to highlight an outstanding effort by UTC’s defense in not allowing any big plays. However, it also accentuates the Bulldogs’ success in converting on third down. They had to regularly convert on third down in the game to have a chance to score, much less win.

One reason the Bulldogs were so successful on third down in the first half was they were able to get outside and turn the corner. Basically, the conversions came in two categories: 3rd-and-short plays were mostly keepers by Allen, while third-and-long efforts were pitches to an A-back (usually Cam Jackson). Here are The Citadel’s third-down conversions in the first half:

  • 3rd-and-6, Cam Jackson carries for 13 yards
  • 3rd-and-6, Cam Jackson carries for 13 yards (yes, the same distance/result, and in the same drive)
  • 3rd-and-8, Cam Jackson carries for 9 yards
  • 3rd-and-2, Isiaha Smith carries for 3 yards
  • 3rd-and-4, Cam Jackson carries for 7 yards
  • 3rd-and-3, Dominique Allen carries for 3 yards
  • 3rd-and-3, Dominique Allen carries for 11 yards
  • 3rd-and-3, Rod Johnson carries for 8 yards
  • 3rd-and-3, Dominique Allen carries for 5 yards
  • 3rd-and-6, Dominique Allen carries for 7 yards

In the second half, the Mocs clearly made an adjustment, and thus the pitch to the outside was not as successful for the Bulldogs. However, The Citadel appeared to throw in a couple of new wrinkles in the fourth quarter, which resulted in key first downs picked up on outside runs by Reggie Williams and Tyler Renew.

So, to sum up: The Citadel won despite completing just one pass (for seven yards), not having a single offensive play from scrimmage result in more than a 15-yard gain, and without forcing a turnover.

It wasn’t a fluke victory, though — far from it. Heck, The Citadel even survived the almost customary hosing by the SoCon officials, who in the third quarter managed to twice deny the Bulldogs a clear first down inside the UTC 10-yard line. (It’s one thing to spot a ball poorly, but to do it on consecutive plays takes a considerable amount of talent.)

I thought the fan support was excellent. It wasn’t quite the overflow crowd that some were expecting, but it was substantial enough, and a lot of the folks in the stands were really into the game.

There were a few who weren’t, but that’s always true. Why they have to leave their seats every 15 minutes, only to return 10 minutes later, I have no idea…

After the game, I was asked by a couple of people how big a win this was for The Citadel. Where does it rank on the all-time list?

My answer, basically: “It depends on the next four games.”

The victory over Chattanooga won’t have a lot of meaning, historical or otherwise, if the Bulldogs don’t continue to win games. Beating UTC won’t matter nearly as much if the team loses two or three conference games down the stretch.

I mentioned this in my preview of the Chattanooga game, but it’s worth repeating: in 1992, Marshall and The Citadel played at Johnson Hagood Stadium in a top-10 matchup between SoCon teams undefeated in league play. Marshall won the game…but The Citadel wound up winning the conference title.

The win on Saturday afternoon was one step, a big one, but nevertheless just one step. As Cam Jackson pointed out in last week’s press conference, “Every conference game is just as important as the next.”

The next conference game is at Wofford. It’s just as important.

This week’s pictures are…well, they’re pictures.

A few final thoughts on The Citadel’s 2015 football season

It was a great year for The Citadel’s football program. It was also a long year.

That was my main takeaway from the Bulldogs’ loss last Saturday, which looked a lot like a physically and/or mentally tired team hitting the proverbial wall. It wasn’t just the turnovers, but the procedure penalties, that seemed to indicate the team (at least on the offensive side of the ball) may have run out of gas.

It is easy to understand, especially when you think back to the previous eight weeks. The first of those eight games was a home game versus Wofford, a matchup the Bulldogs had probably targeted since the officiating debacle in Spartanburg last season. Of the next seven games, five were on the road. Three of those road matchups were conference games (almost by definition tough contests), and the other two were against an SEC team (South Carolina) and a first-round FCS playoff game (Coastal Carolina).

The two home games during that stretch weren’t gimmes, either. The contest against Mercer came down to a two-point conversion attempt.

Meanwhile, while the score may not reflect it, the battle for the coveted Silver Shako was a hard-hitting affair. You may recall Dominique Allen didn’t finish that game, and he wasn’t the only Bulldog to suffer a few bruises that day.

It was a very taxing two-month run of football. I got worn out just watching the team play; I can’t imagine what the players (and coaches) had to go through.

While it was a disappointing way for the season to end, that will soon be forgotten (if it hasn’t been forgotten already). Instead, the 2015 football season will have plenty of pleasant memories.

This season, The Citadel:

  • beat its two traditional rivals (Furman and VMI), both by 21 points
  • defeated Wofford to break an annoying streak against the Terriers (though only a couple of SoCon officials thought the Bulldogs didn’t beat Wofford the year before)
  • won a share of the Southern Conference title (the first league crown in football, shared or otherwise, since 1992, and only the third in school history)
  • won a road playoff game
  • won at South Carolina, a victory that will always be remembered (and savored) by multiple generations of Bulldog fans
  • won 9 games, second-most in school annals

Not bad, not bad at all…

Where does the 2015 team rank when compared to other Bulldog teams of the past? This is a topic of interest in some quarters.

One thing I don’t want to do is compare “modern” teams to those squads that played before The Citadel joined the Southern Conference. While it’s fun to look back on the exploits of the 1916 and 1926 teams (or that undefeated 1906 squad), I’m not really sure how to evaluate them.

However, I do want to note that Harry O’Brien’s 1916 team was 6-1-1, including back-to-back wins over Clemson and South Carolina to close out the season. You can bet The Citadel’s alumni were happy after that campaign.

The Evening Post, after the win over South Carolina that year:

Supporters of the military college eleven have a right to glory in the 1916 team’s record…the Bulldogs have earned the right to the state football crown, and to a place among the best teams in the South Atlantic states. Surely The Citadel could ask for no more glorious season than one which included in its list of vanquished elevens Clemson and Carolina.

That 1916 team did go about things a little differently than Mike Houston’s charges:

The Citadel has justly won renown in state football for its forward passing

I’ll give that squad the nod as the best Bulldog team of the pre-SoCon era.

As for the 2015 team, I think it’s fair to say that only one Bulldog team of the past has a clearly superior résumé; that would be the 1992 squad.

That leaves the following teams (all of which won 7+ games) in the mix for 2nd place:

  • 1937
  • 1959
  • 1960
  • 1961
  • 1969
  • 1971
  • 1980
  • 1981
  • 1984
  • 1988
  • 1990
  • 1991
  • 2007
  • 2012

I narrowed it down to 1960, 1961, and 2015, though there is something to be said for 1959 (8-2), not to mention the very entertaining 1971 (8-3) and 1988 (8-4) teams.

1960: won the Tangerine Bowl; 2nd in the SoCon; 8-2-1 overall, including the often-referenced 0-0 game versus Florida State

1961: won the SoCon; 7-3 overall, including wins over both Furman and VMI (the latter a road victory to clinch the league title)

2015: shared the SoCon title; 9-4 overall, including wins over both Furman and VMI; also beat South Carolina; one postseason victory

Hmm…

A few days ago, when I was asked where I would rank the 2015 team, I answered “4th, with an argument for 3rd”. The more I think about it, though, I tend to believe the correct answer is “possibly 2nd”.

Reasonable minds can disagree. It’s a fun thing to talk about, particularly during the winter months.

I’ve mentioned it before, but this year’s senior class was 8-0 in “celebration” games (Parents’ Day/Homecoming). As far as I know, in the modern history of Parents’ Day/Homecoming events, it is the first time a group of seniors can make that claim.

Best of luck to those seniors in their future endeavors, and thanks to them and the other players (and the coaches) for a great year.

Can’t wait ’til the 2016 season.