2011 Football Game 9: The Citadel vs. Georgia Southern

The Citadel at Georgia Southern, to be played at Paulson Stadium, with kickoff at 2:00 pm ET on Saturday, November 5.  The game will not be televised. The game can be heard on radio via The Citadel Sports Network, with “Voice of the Bulldogs” Danny Reed calling the action alongside analyst Walt Nadzak.   Bulldog Insider will also provide free audio; the only video available for this game is being provided by Georgia Southern as part of a subscription service.

I’ve already written about The Citadel’s victory over VMI. There isn’t much to add to that, except I did want to briefly mention VMI’s fans.  The Keydets brought more supporters to Johnson Hagood Stadium than Wofford did, and weren’t too far behind Furman in the “travel” category. That’s very impressive, given that A) it’s a long trip, and B) VMI hasn’t had a winning season in 30 years.  Full credit to VMI’s fans, a group that surely deserves better results on the gridiron.

Now the Bulldogs face what could be their biggest challenge of the season to date, a road game against Georgia Southern, which until last week was unbeaten and ranked #1 in the country in both FCS polls. The Eagles saw their perfect season go by the boards in a 24-17 loss in Boone to Appalachian State, and are likely to be a rather surly bunch right now, just in time for Homecoming in Statesboro. Beautiful Eagle Creek may seem a little less beautiful right now.

One thing Georgia Southern can’t really afford to do at this point in the season is lose to The Citadel, because it would put the Eagles in a rather difficult position. Right now GSU is 7-1 with three games remaining. After hosting the Bulldogs, Georgia Southern finishes the regular season with two road games. One of those is in Spartanburg against fellow SoCon title contender Wofford, while the finale is a matchup with BCS title contender Alabama.

If Georgia Southern were to lose all three games, it would finish at 7-4, and would have a borderline case for a postseason bid. The record wouldn’t be great, and GSU would have finished the campaign with four straight defeats. Even more problematic would be the fact that the Eagles would have only six victories against Division I teams, as one of GSU’s wins came against Division II Tusculum.

Technically, an FCS playoff at-large team doesn’t need seven D-1 wins, but historically it has been a de facto rule that at-large candidates should have at least seven such victories. (That may change if there is more postseason expansion.)

GSU definitely needs to win one of its next two games to ensure a playoff bid, and probably needs to win both to garner a national seed.

Although the odds of Georgia Southern getting left out of the FCS postseason are low, it’s important not to overlook the problem of scheduling both a “money” game and a matchup against a non-D1 squad. While a team that closes a season with four straight losses isn’t likely to get an at-large berth anyway, what if Georgia Southern had lost earlier in the season (say, to Chattanooga, a one-point victory for the Eagles), and then finished the year with a win over The Citadel but a tough loss at Wofford, and then the expected defeat to the Crimson Tide?

A SoCon team with 7 wins and a loss to Alabama would normally be at worst a marginal at-large contender, but GSU would only have six D-1 victories and would presumably be out of the running.

That’s why it is better, when looking for a no-return home game, that ADs at schools with playoff aspirations try to schedule D-1 schools rather than D-2 or NAIA teams. It’s not that easy to find FCS schools willing to make a one-way trip, at least not cheaply, but it’s something that needs to be done. Of course, there is the additional risk that the school in question may be good enough to actually win the game.

For The Citadel, Jacksonville was an excellent season-opening opponent in this respect. Presbyterian would also be a good candidate, and of course there is a long tradition of games between the Bulldogs and the Blue Hose. Newberry, on the other hand, is probably not an option, since it is still D-2.

For some fans of the Eagles, the playoffs aren’t enough. There is still a significant group of Georgia Southern supporters who believe that it is time for GSU to make the move to the land of FBS. The school published a study on the issue two years ago. At the time I wrote about whether GSU should make the leap, the latest round of conference-jumping wasn’t even on the horizon, much less a staple of hourly news reports.

I think it is even more of a risk to move to FBS now than it was two years ago, because there is major uncertainty about what that division will become in the next few years. Georgia Southern (and Appalachian State) supporters hoping to become part of the FBS club are dreaming of a chance to join a league like the Sun Belt or, in a best-case scenario, Conference USA.

Even if that were to happen, though, in the current climate there is a possibility it would amount to jumping on a treadmill. If the much-theorized breakaway by the major programs to form super-conferences comes to pass, Sun Belt and C-USA schools are not likely to be part of the chosen few. They are more likely to wind up in a larger FCS.

The Citadel has won two straight games, reason for optimism in the continuing story that is Triple O’Higgins. However, I think there is still reason to be cautious. While I’m not one to complain about any victory, Western Carolina and VMI are not exactly the Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers when it comes to football prowess. While the Bulldog D has generally been excellent this season, The Citadel’s triple option attack is still very much a work in progress.

That isn’t to say that strides haven’t been made, because they have. It’s just that the Bulldogs haven’t really had that “eureka” moment, or game, at least not yet. It may be that it won’t happen this season.

Was there such a defining game in 1988, the second year of Charlie Taaffe’s wishbone attack? Was there a specific game when everyone realized that the Bulldogs were no longer learning how to run the offense, but were instead refining it?

Well, I’m not sure. Looking back at the seven-game winning streak in 1988, there wasn’t a true breakout game in terms of rushing yardage. It was more of a gradual increase, from 290 yards rushing (Navy) to 322 (Western Carolina), then a blip downwards (187 vs. Chattanooga), then the two games started by Tommy Burriss (278 yards rushing against Boston University and 301 vs. East Tennessee State).

Tangent: as it happens, the two games Burriss started in 1988 both came against schools that in the next few years would drop their respective football programs. I don’t think this can be blamed on Burriss, however.

The contest against ETSU could qualify as the game that truly established the offense as a force, as in addition to the rushing yardage the Bulldogs threw for 199 yards, with the 500 yards of total offense being the most in a game for the cadets since 1980. The Citadel scored 48 points against ETSU (31 in the second quarter).

The game against the Buccaneers was the eighth of the 1988 campaign. In the ninth game, Gene Brown would return from injury and lead the Bulldogs to one of their more celebrated victories, a 20-3 Homecoming triumph over #1 Marshall.

It would be nice to have a similar result in the ninth game of this season…

It won’t be easy, though, as the Eagles rank first in the SoCon in scoring defense and rush defense. One big reason why is Georgia Southern nosetackle Brent Russell, who Kevin Higgins called “the best defensive lineman in the country at our level.” It’s hard to argue the point. In last week’s loss to Appalachian State, the redshirt junior registered a career-high ten tackles.

One of the more notable performances in Russell’s career came last season against Navy, when he completely dominated the line of scrimmage, a major reason why Navy was held to 193 total yards (109 rushing). The Midshipmen managed to win the game despite Russell’s efforts, 13-7.

I found it interesting that in his weekly SoCon teleconference, GSU coach Jeff Monken was quick to praise Mike Sellers, the Bulldogs’ sophomore center. When The Citadel’s offense faces Georgia Southern’s defense, the critical matchup could be between the two players who line up closest to the ball.

Incidentally (or maybe not so incidentally), Georgia Southern’s defense has forced a punt on their opponents’ opening possession six times. Presbyterian’s opening drive against the Eagles resulted in a field goal attempt that was blocked. The only time the opposition scored on its initial possession against Georgia Southern was last week, when Appalachian State’s first drive resulted in a touchdown. Obviously, that’s also the only game GSU has lost.

Jaybo Shaw, GSU’s quarterback, was injured early in the contest last season at Johnson Hagood Stadium, so (presuming he stays healthy) this will be the first time The Citadel has seen him in extended game action. The Bulldogs will get their fill of quarterbacks named Shaw, however, as they will face Jaybo’s brother Connor in the game at South Carolina. Two Shaws in three weeks is probably a record.

Shaw’s passing numbers are reasonably solid, if modest by comparison to “normal” offenses. He has completed 54% of his throws for five touchdowns, against two interceptions. More importantly, he is averaging 11.2 yards per attempt, as the Eagles are third nationally (second in the SoCon) in pass efficiency. Shaw has rushed for 261 yards and seven touchdowns.

He has distributed the ball well in GSU’s triple option attack, with a bevy of running backs featuring for the Eagles. Robert Brown, the starting B-back, is the leading ground-gainer on the season for GSU. Included in his totals are 178 yards versus Chattanooga, 140 yards against Samford, and 116 yards versus Elon. He is averaging nearly seven yards per carry.

Georgia Southern’s offensive line has included the same five starters in every game except for last week’s contest, with the two-deep released by the school indicating the standard five-man group will return for the game against The Citadel. Three of the five are seniors.

GSU leads the nation in scoring offense (41.1 points per game) and is second in rushing offense.

The Eagles are also dangerous on special teams. Laron Scott averages 35. 5 yards per kick return, tops in FCS. As for punt returner Darreion Robinson, statistics don’t tell the whole story. This effort against Appalachian State does: Link

Saturday’s game against Georgia Southern will be a challenge, but that’s all right. The players won’t be dreading the trip to Statesboro; rather, they will be relishing it. It’s an opportunity to see how far the Bulldogs have come, and how far they still need to go.

Football, Game 8: The Citadel vs. Georgia Southern

The Bulldogs return to Johnson Hagood Stadium for a 1:00 pm ET game against the Eagles.  First, though, a few thoughts on the Appalachian State game, since I didn’t post a review of that contest.

First, I heard the final score — 39-10.  I later read that during the game, The Citadel:

Did not complete a pass (the first time the Bulldogs had failed to do that in 15 years)

— Committed two turnovers, one fumble and one interception

— Botched two punt snaps, the second of which led to punter Cass Couey leaving the game with an injury

— Lost the battle of time of possession, despite 53 rush attempts (in 59 total plays)

— Only averaged 18.2 yards per kickoff return

— Missed out on a defensive turnover thanks to a pass interference penalty

— Allowed TD receptions of 65 and 73 yards

Lost one of its experienced playmakers, running back Van Dyke Jones, with what was later determined to be an ACL injury; Jones’ career highlight, of course, was a 69-yard run against the Mountaineers in last year’s meeting

All of that came on the road, against the #1 ranked team in FCS football.  So how exactly did The Citadel only lose by 29 points?

Well, App State dialed it down some in the fourth quarter, but there were some positives for the Bulldogs, looking at the stat sheet:

— First, full credit to backup punter Alexander Wall for doing a nice job on short notice; he averaged 42.2 yards per punt and only allowed 10 total return yards

— While Matt Thompson started, Sam Martin did play and saw significant time, so his injury from last week apparently wasn’t serious

— The aforementioned PI aside, the Bulldogs only committed five penalties

— The Bulldog D did force two turnovers that counted, including a fumble that was returned 40 yards by Eric Clanton, setting up the game’s first score; a later interception by Brandon McCladdie was the first pick by an App State opponent this season

— The defense, despite giving up two big pass plays, allowed less than 400 yards of total offense, which against App State (and considering it was on the field longer than normal) wasn’t too bad

— App State was only 5-14 on third down conversions

— The Citadel blocked not one but two PATs

Okay, so maybe I had to stretch to come up with some of those positives, but I guess my final analysis of the game would go something like this:  it could have been worse. Hey, the Mountaineers are ranked #1; the Bulldogs are not.  It was never going to be a game for The Citadel to use in measuring its progress this season.

On the other hand, Saturday’s game against Georgia Southern is such a game.

Prior to this season, Jeff Monken had spent the past 13 years as an assistant for Paul Johnson at three different schools — Georgia Southern, Navy, and Georgia Tech. (Monken was also a grad assistant at Hawai’i when Johnson was the offensive coordinator there.)  He was hired by GSU to restore the triple option, and with it the glory days of Eagle football.

Perhaps the difference in expectations for the football programs at Georgia Southern and The Citadel can be summed up by this Monken quote:

“Who cares about transition years?  Nobody cares about that.  We want to win. I want to win, our fans want to win, our kids want to win. Nobody wants to hear about transition, or we’re young, or we’re learning. That’s a bunch of talk.

When you play a football game, you play to win. My expectation is the same for this season as it is for every season, and that’s to try and win every game. That’s what I expect.”

Contrast that with The Citadel, where most (although by no means all) fans are content to allow Kevin Higgins a “transition year” in the sixth season of his tenure at the military college.  Of course, Monken knows that he has a little more leeway than what he expressed in the above quote.  Georgia Southern fans aren’t expecting him to compete for the national title this year.

Next year, though, is a different story…

There are also those GSU supporters who aren’t that interested in the FCS national crown, because they would rather see the program move up to FBS land.  I think that would be a mistake, at least as things are currently constituted in the two sub-divisions.  I wrote about this last year, when GSU released its study on the issue.

Of course, now Appalachian State has decided it’s also going to study the pros and cons of making the move.  It’s prudent to assess the landscape of college football, and I don’t blame either school for investigating their options.  It’s my opinion, though, that unless there are major alterations in the world of FCS (or FBS), staying put is the way to go for the folks in Boone and Statesboro.

Georgia Southern is 3-3, 1-2 in the SoCon.  It looked for a while like Monken was ahead of schedule, for going into the game against Wofford the Eagles were 3-1 and ranked in the FCS Coaches Poll.  However, a home loss to the Terriers was followed by last week’s setback at Chattanooga, and it’s clear that it’s not yet smooth sailing for GSU in conference play.

The biggest advantage Georgia Southern has had over The Citadel in re-instituting the triple option has been at quarterback, where the Eagles can rely on Georgia Tech transfer Jaybo Shaw, who not only ran the offense at Tech, but also ran it in high school.  He’s not an explosive runner, but he can make all the reads and can also throw the ball fairly well (10.3 yards per pass attempt; 4 TDs, no INTs).

GSU is averaging 4.9 yards per rush.  J.J. Wilcox is a solid slotback who can also catch the ball (his eleven receptions leads the team).  Robert Brown is a freshman fullback who actually leads the Eagles in rushing, but he’s been hurt.  There is no Adrian Peterson (GSU version, not Oklahoma version) suiting up this year for GSU.

Wilcox is the only GSU player with more than 95 receiving yards (he has 302).  No other Eagle has more than six grabs, but when one does make a catch, it’s usually for a good gain.  GSU receivers are averaging 19.1 yards per reception.

Georgia Southern has a young-ish offensive line (three juniors, a sophomore, and a freshman), and it’s been a little inconsistent.  While the Eagles are fourth nationally in rushing offense, they have suffered eleven sacks, which is a lot for a team that doesn’t throw the ball too often.

On defense, the Eagles are led by Brent Russell, an interior lineman with 4.5 sacks, three other tackles for loss, and two pass breakups.  He’s a very good player.  Other than Russell, though, GSU is not particularly sack-happy, with 12 total sacks on the year.  Georgia Southern has a solid, if not dynamic, group of linebackers and an improved secondary, although one with a tendency to give up the big play (five TD passes allowed of greater than 25 yards).  Does that sound familiar?

Georgia Southern’s special teams have been outstanding. Placekicker Adrian Mora has not missed a field goal or extra point this season.  He hasn’t been asked to kick long FGs (his longest this year is 41 yards) but he has made all that he has tried. Punter Charlie Edwards is the key factor behind the Eagles’ excellent net punting average of 39 yards, fourth in the country.

Georgia Southern’s 3-1 start included a game at Navy.  GSU lost that game, but only by a 13-7 margin.  Considering it was a battle of triple option teams, both with Paul Johnson connections, I thought it was interesting that the game was low scoring.

The Citadel is also running a similar triple option system, of course.  Will the Eagles defend the same way against the Bulldogs?  And how exactly did they defend, anyway?

Well, a good person to ask would be The Birddog, chronicler of Naval Academy athletics and the unquestioned Tolstoy of the Triple Option.  I’ve mentioned his blog before; for something of an introductory primer on the offense, here are a few posts from it:

Reading Is Fundamental

The Science and the Art

The Midline Option

Other People’s Rivalries And The Futility Of Defending Against the Wishbone

I asked him a few questions about the Georgia Southern-Navy game.  Some of the Q-and-A is below:

Question:  I read that GSU defended the option in part by using its corners more aggressively (“firing the corners”) than is the norm.  Is that correct?

Answer:  The best way to defend firing corners is just to block.  It’s not an uncommon move; Air Force, Wake Forest, and SMU did it too. The difference between the wins and the losses was personnel, specifically the slotbacks. One of our junior slotbacks who was injured to start the year came back against Wake Forest, and all of a sudden it was no longer a problem.

Question:  Would the passing game be one way to combat that?  Specifically, throwing the ball to a slotback, or maybe even the fullback (on a screen pass)?

Answer:  There are ways to beat it in the passing game too.  The simplest way is to just throw to the uncovered receiver.  I think there’s a video of that in the Air Force writeup.

[Note from SS…that post can be found here:  Link ]

The cornerback blitz is as vulnerable to screen passes as any other blitz, and Navy runs a screen to the fullback in the direction of the blitz on occasion. The wheel-post works really well against blitzing corners too.

The safety has to roll over to cover the wide receiver, which leaves a linebacker to cover a slotback, which is usually a pretty favorable matchup for the offense.  I have an example toward the end of this post:  Link

Georgia Southern’s staff knew the Navy staff’s hand signals, so Navy had to stop going no-huddle early on.  Brent Russell also played a very good game.


Question:  Any thoughts on their splits?

Answer:  GSU’s splits are wider than Navy’s. There was a rule enacted last year that prohibited anyone lined up outside the tackles from blocking below the waist back inside the tackle box. That’s why Navy’s slots line up with their inside foot inside the outside foot of the tackle.  GSU doesn’t bother having their slots cut block inside anymore, preferring to keep the formation more spread.

Thanks again to The Birddog for answering my (probably simpleminded) questions.

The passing game has been a sore spot for The Citadel this year, of course, so the notion that being able to successfully throw the ball against GSU’s defense might be a key to the game probably makes Bulldog fans a little queasy.  The Bulldog slotbacks also must block well; perimeter blocking has been an issue for The Citadel all season.

Earlier in the post I linked Jeff Hartsell’s story about The Citadel’s anemic passing game.  Here is an excerpt from that piece that is worth noting:

…the Bulldogs have to get some semblance of a throwing game in shape before Georgia Southern brings its version of the double-slot option to Johnson Hagood Stadium on Saturday.

Coach Kevin Higgins said Monday that offensive coaches will simplify their passing schemes this week in order to do just that.

“One thing we talked about as a staff (Monday) morning is simplifying what we are doing,” Higgins said at his weekly news conference. “Last week, we carried in 30 to 36 passing plays that you practice on a routine basis, based on what you might see in a game. At this point, I think we have a good idea of what our opponents will be running. Now, in my mind, we’ve got to get that 36 down to 10 or 15 plays.

“We need to run those plays well in practice every day, so that the quarterback is more confident, and receivers and everybody else are on the same page. So I think we’ve got to simplify and practice those specific plays more throughout the week.”

Hartsell also pointed out later in the story that the better you are at running the ball in the TO, the easier it is to pass it.
It should be a nice day for a game on Saturday in Charleston, with sunny skies and temperatures in the mid-70s.  Let’s hope that the sun finally shines on The Citadel in conference play.