Ruminating about off-field football troubles at The Citadel

It’s been a busy and occasionally difficult time for yours truly, which partly explains the lack of recent posts.  With regards to the Rice/Starks situation, I also wanted to wait and see how things shook out.  As it is, things haven’t become that much clearer as of late, but I figured I could make some comments about what we know right now.

They aren’t earthshaking observations, to be sure, but I wanted to weigh in on the matter in a little more detail.  I’m going to concentrate on just a few points.  There are two issues worth addressing that I’m not going to mention right now, because I simply don’t have enough information (not that I have any extra-special info on what I’m actually going to write about).

Before I delve into the recruitment of Reggie Rice and Miguel Starks, I wanted to briefly focus on an article in The Post and Courier from March 10 written by Schuyler Kropf. On the whole, I don’t have a big problem with the media coverage of the Rice/Starks arrests, but this particular piece gave me pause.

Kropf interviewed several alums, asking them about how the arrests might affect The Citadel’s image.  All fine and good, and he got on-record quotes from three different graduates, one of whom I actually know.  Kropf apparently could not get anyone to go on record with a “gloom and doom” quote, however, so he had to do what any intrepid reporter does when faced with such a dilemma.

He got quotes from anonymous message board posters.

Seriously, that’s what he did.  I had to read the article a couple of times to make sure I wasn’t missing something.

I’m not completely sure Kropf understands the nature of message boards.  I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt, I suppose, but it strikes me as poor reporting.  For one thing, how sure is he that the posts he quotes are from actual graduates of The Citadel?

Now, maybe he did some checking, or asked permission from the posters in question before quoting their comments, but even then can he really be sure they are who they say they are?  (He certainly didn’t indicate that he had confirmed anyone’s identity.  Heck, he didn’t even mention the usernames associated with the quotes.)

Kropf was unable to get a negative quote from any current cadet (or alum) on the record, although he did write this, a time-honored crutch for a struggling scribe:

…several cadets declined to speak about the mood inside the ranks, quickly turning their heads around to see if anyone had seen them talking with a reporter.

With all due respect, Mr. Kropf, get over yourself.

Now, as it happens, the two message board quotes in the article are, I believe, from actual alumni of The Citadel.  I can’t guarantee that, but I’m fairly sure — but then, I’m an occasional poster on that forum myself, and thus may be able to differentiate from regular posters and “trolls”.  Whether Kropf can do so is another matter.

That particular message board doesn’t have nearly as much traffic as you would see from forums devoted to larger schools. Sites such as InsideMDSports or  Phog.net may have several thousand members, with hundreds of posters online at one time, while thelordsofdiscipline.net has slightly over 500 registered members, with about a dozen of them online at extreme “peak” times.

What that means, among other things, is that when you have an event like the Rice/Starks arrests, the board is arguably more susceptible to being overwhelmed by people posting as fans of the school who aren’t really fans, just to stir things up.  It’s been known to happen.

Kropf could easily have wound up quoting a 13-year-old posing as a graduate of The Citadel.

There is obviously a big difference between getting something on record from a living, breathing person and grabbing a comment from the internet.  The first line of the article stated, “Whether The Citadel has an image problem depends on who’s doing the talking.”   Well, not only does the article not adequately identify those behind part of “the talking”, it doesn’t identify them at all.

It appears to me that the reporter wanted to write the story from a certain angle, but could not get the confirming quotes he needed, so he took a cheap way out.  In my view, that is not quality journalism.

Should Reggie Rice have been admitted to The Citadel?  Based on what he has done since enrolling, the answer is no, but should have that been the answer all along?

For those not familiar with Rice’s history prior to receiving an athletic scholarship to the military college, this column gives the basic story:

During Rice’s senior season [in high school], he was spectacular. He had three 200-yard games, including one against perennial state power Lincoln County.

However, his final season was cut short when he was suspended after eight games following his arrest and subsequent guilty plea in juvenile court to a statutory rape charge. Rice [was] tried in juvenile court because the three girls involved were deemed to have been willing participants.

Rice was placed on 24 months of probation and ordered to perform 56 hours of community service. He was given something else after the 2006 incident: a second chance.

Several area leaders went to bat for Rice, and even assisted in him being admitted to The Citadel, where he had been offered a football scholarship.

Early on during his career as a cadet, it appeared Rice was redeeming himself…

There was a racial aspect to the statutory rape case.  Rice (and one of the other males involved) were black, the girls white, and some in the community felt the charges were only brought due to race.  It appears that some of those “area leaders” quoted in the piece thought he was being more or less railroaded, including a superior court judge (and graduate of The Citadel) who sent the case back to juvenile court.

Tangent:  if you think you’ve heard a similar tale before, maybe you have.  I was reminded of another, more notorious case in Georgia, one that involved Marcus Dixon (now of the Dallas Cowboys).

Besides being a fine football player, Rice was intelligent and personable.  He impressed a lot of people, including the aforementioned judge and, later, a prominent businessman in the Charleston area (and alumnus).  It has been interesting to read comments from people — experienced “men of the world” types, presumably naturals at spotting a fraud — who liked Rice, trusted him, and were shocked at his subsequent problems.  Some people might call Rice a born con artist, or maybe even a sociopath.  I don’t know what he is, and it doesn’t really matter now.

Given that background, should Rice have been admitted to The Citadel?  No, he should not have.  It should have been clear then, as it is now.  I lay the blame for that on the admissions office more so than Kevin Higgins, as Rice was in Higgins’ first recruiting class, and the coach would not have been that familiar with the school.  I think it is clear that General John Rosa believes Rice’s admission was in error.  From his March 4 letter to alumni:

As did many colleges in the country, The Citadel revised its admission application process following the tragedy at Virginia Tech. We now require more information from candidates. Additionally, if the director of admissions has any concerns regarding an application, he presents them to me for consideration before final action is taken.

In other words, “that’s not happening again.”

It shouldn’t have happened in the first place.  Most people understand that The Citadel is not a reformatory for wayward boys, but every now and then someone gets confused about the school’s mission and talks about its capacity to “redeem” a student.  In the first column I linked, note that the author says that “it appeared Rice was redeeming himself.”

There are schools, many of them very good schools, where Rice would have been a reasonable candidate for admission.  The Citadel is not one of them.  You don’t go to The Citadel for redemption, because that’s not what the college is about.  The Citadel “experience” tends to highlight your natural, innate personality traits, as opposed to developing others.

The Citadel, at its essence, is about testing yourself, and learning exactly who you are. This is a very good thing, because young men and women fresh out of high school usually have no idea who they really are.  It’s also about learning how to deal with pressure, and about perseverance.

It’s not a second-chance type of place.  Maybe Kevin Higgins didn’t realize that when he first arrived on campus, but there surely were officials in positions of authority who could have guided him.

I can’t give Higgins a pass for the recruitment (and subsequent “handling”) of Miguel Starks, however.  Starks was a project in more ways than one.  He was always the most impressive-looking player on the sidelines during a game, as he looked great in a football uniform.  At The Citadel, though, that’s not the most important uniform.

Higgins saw in Starks the potential of a special player, and treated him accordingly.  Higgins may have chosen to  overlook some red flags that were raised during Starks’ high school career.  Some of those apparently included being dismissed from the basketball team and being suspended for a playoff game (for an on-field fight).

There have been numerous complaints raised in various quarters that Higgins essentially “enabled” Starks at The Citadel, going to bat for him on multiple occasions when Starks got in trouble for not adapting to the military system.  When you give preferential treatment to a star (or potential star) player, you run the risk of alienating the corps of cadets, not to mention his fellow football players.  This may go a long way towards explaining some of the angst expressed by current cadets concerning corps squad issues.

Also, running interference for an athlete (or any cadet, for that matter) is ultimately a pointless exercise.  You can’t make a person want to make it at The Citadel — he’s got to want it for himself.  If he doesn’t, all the interceding and pleading in the world won’t make a difference.

Coaches at The Citadel have a learning curve when it comes to recruiting.  One of the key things they have to learn is that keeping attrition low often correlates directly to on-field success.  One of the important ways to prevent attrition is to recruit cadets who can become good players, as opposed to recruiting players and trying to make them cadets.  Sometimes it takes a coach several years before he figures that out.  There have been coaches at The Citadel who have never figured it out.

I’m not advocating firing anybody.  I’m fairly confident that this episode is an isolated incident.  However, I think coaches and administrators need to be put on notice.  It’s one thing to have a losing record on the football field.  At The Citadel, though, you better be undefeated off the field.  One loss off the field is one loss too many.

Just make a play

““If anybody on offense, defense or special teams had just made one play at any point, it would have been a different game.” — Kevin Higgins

To review some of the plays that weren’t made:

— UTC quarterback B.J. Coleman threw 61 passes on Saturday.  He was not sacked.  Not once!  To be honest, that’s hard to do.  You would think that at least one time he would have tripped over a lineman’s foot and fallen down, or suffered a leg cramp while in the pocket, or pulled a Brett Favre-against-Michael Strahan move, but no.

What’s more, when Coleman went back to pass, he wasn’t looking to run.  Coleman threw 61 passes and had no rush attempts for the game.  The Mocs only rushed 12 times during the entire game (for 17 yards), so basically on every play, the Bulldogs knew that Coleman was going to throw the ball, and he was never going to be a threat to take off and run with it (and they also knew he was going to throw in Blue Cooper’s direction as often as possible, but Cooper still caught 14 passes).

The Bulldog D held the Mocs in check for a while, and when Chris Billingslea intercepted a fourth-down pass and returned it to the UTC 49, eventually leading to a Bulldog TD, things were looking good.  Then the Mocs went to a no-huddle attack, and from that point on, The Citadel’s defense turned to mush.  The ensuing drives for UTC were as follows:

  • 60 yards, field goal
  • 56 yards, field goal
  • 80 yards, touchdown
  • 71 yards, touchdown (plus a two-point conversion)
  • 43 yards, field goal
  • 9 yards, touchdown (after a long punt return)
  • 17 yards, turned over on downs (a clock-eating exercise that left The Citadel just 25 seconds to try to score)

You’ll notice there are no turnovers or punts listed.  That’s because there weren’t any to list once the Mocs went to the no-huddle.

— Speaking of turnovers, The Citadel’s defensive backs probably should have intercepted at least three Coleman passes in the second half.  Should have, but didn’t.  Again, someone needed to make a play, but no one did.

— Not only was Coleman not sacked, he was rarely pressured.  Higgins noted that “looking at the tape, we did have five or six hits on him”.  Five or six hits is generally not going to be enough to make an impact against a QB who threw 61 passes, but as it is the official statistics only credit The Citadel with one “hurry” for the entire game.  Of course, the official statistics also list John Synovec as having played quarterback for the Bulldogs on Saturday…

— The actual quarterback for The Citadel on Saturday was freshman walkon Tommy Edwards, who basically performed at the same level as he did against Samford — that is to say, quite well.  You really couldn’t have asked for much more from Edwards, who did a good job throwing the ball and forced the Mocs to honor him as a runner.  He also committed no turnovers.

After a gimpy Bart Blanchard struggled against Wofford, and with Miguel Starks apparently not in much better shape than Blanchard, the coaching staff’s decision to start Edwards was obviously the right call.  It probably should have been the call last week, too.

The offense did bog down in the second half (and the fourth-down playcall that resulted in Terrell Dallas losing two yards was poor), but the bottom line is that Edwards and company put 28 points on the board, including a touchdown with just over ten minutes to play that made the score 28-13.  That should have been enough to win the game, but the defense didn’t hold up its end of the bargain, and neither did the special teams.

The Bulldogs had another makeable field goal go unmade, failed to recover an onside kick, and also allowed a 53-yard punt return to set up the winning touchdown.  Teams don’t win games with special teams that are less than special.

The Citadel didn’t perform as badly against UT-Chattanooga as it did against Elon, Western Carolina, and Wofford, but it was still a crushing defeat.  Every week it seems the Bulldogs have another goal for this year go by the boards.  In the case of the UTC loss, that unmet goal is a winning season.

Of course, winning teams make key plays to clinch victories.  The Citadel hasn’t been making those plays for most of the season, and it shows in the win-loss record.

Same song, different year

In college football, there are not that many games in a season, at least when compared to other sports.  For an FCS school, there are just eleven opportunities.  It’s important to make the most of each and every one of them.

The Citadel has played nine games this season.  In three of those games, the team’s performance has been absolutely awful, and I mean awful in the “did they know there was a game today?” sense.  That’s fully one-third of the games.

In sports, every now and then you’re going to have a bad day where nothing goes right (the same is true for life in general).  Most fans can understand that.  Having it happen once every three games — well, that’s not so understandable.  Worse, all three thud-fests were conference games (Elon, Western Carolina, and now Wofford).

In past posts, I called the Elon game a debacle, and the WCU loss a disaster.  I’m not sure what adjective applies to The Citadel’s game on Saturday against the Terriers.  Perhaps I should call it “disheartening” just to stay with the D-word theme.

Speaking of D:

  • On the second Wofford series, the Terriers were faced with a 3rd-and-8, and promptly converted it by completing a 23-yard pass — this from a team that rarely throws the ball (Wofford entered the contest last in the nation in passing yardage per game).  You just knew it was going to be a long day for the Bulldogs when that happened.
  • That third-down conversion was one of seven the Terriers picked up in eleven tries.  Wofford had come into the game only converting 38% of its third downs.
  • Of course, Wofford had 13 first downs in which it didn’t even need to convert a third down.
  • Wofford had lost 13 fumbles and thrown 6 interceptions prior to Saturday’s game, but the only Terrier turnover on Saturday came deep in Bulldog territory with Wofford already leading 29-10.
  • That fumble would be the only time the Terriers failed to score in the “red zone” in seven tries (four touchdowns, two field goals).

The defense’s day was probably best epitomized by a play in the second quarter.  Wofford faced a 3rd and 1 at The Citadel’s 33 yard line.  As the Terriers broke their huddle, an image of Terrence Reese in full “make some noise, get pumped up” mode appeared on the video board.  Wofford ran an inside handoff for three yards and a first down, with Reese then penalized for a late hit.  The Terriers scored four plays later.

The defensive issues weren’t particularly surprising, given the Bulldogs’ struggles on D for most of the season, and the success Wofford has had against The Citadel in recent years.  During the Kevin Higgins era, the Terriers have scored at least 28 points in every game against the Bulldogs.

However, unlike last season’s game against Wofford, on Saturday the Bulldog offense was equally disappointing.

I’m not sure what to make of the way the quarterbacks were utilized during the game.  Obviously, Bart Blanchard and Miguel Starks were both coming off injuries, and if they couldn’t play, that would be one thing.  As it happened, they both played, although whether either should have seemed debatable.

Blanchard was clearly struggling with a bad toe (and he’s had a bad ankle all year).  Never the fastest of QBs, he was no threat to run.  Any nominal “option” plays that The Citadel ran with Blanchard in the game were really just handoffs to Terrell Dallas or Van Dyke Jones, and Wofford treated them as such.  He also appeared to be a sitting duck in the pocket.

After the game, according to a story in The Post and Courier, Blanchard was wearing a walking boot in the locker room, just as he had in prior games against Furman and Samford, when he didn’t play.  I’m not sure why he played against Wofford, either.

I appreciated the effort and the determination, though.  Even with a bad wheel, he threw a really impressive pass to Kevin Hardy that would lead to a field goal; I’m not sure all of the fans in the stands appreciated how good a throw that was.  Blanchard did not get much help from his receivers, as there were several dropped passes (a recurring issue for most of the season).

Blanchard was in the game late in the first half when The Citadel got the ball on its own 6 yard line.  There were only 61 seconds left on the clock, and the Bulldogs actually had a little momentum, having scored on their previous drive to cut Wofford’s lead to seven, at 17-10.  The Terriers had just one timeout left, so the Bulldogs could have run out the clock.

However, on first down Blanchard went back to pass and was sacked, fumbling the ball.  Lincoln Kling recovered in the end zone for the Bulldogs, but the result was a safety.  Wofford returned the ensuing free kick to the Bulldog 40 and would eventually kick a field goal to take a 22-10 lead into the locker room.  It was like giving away five free points and all the momentum.  Wofford then got the ball first to open the third quarter, drove right down the field and scored.  Ballgame.

Tommy Edwards replaced Blanchard just before the end of the third quarter, moved the Bulldogs 38 yards in five plays, and then threw an interception.  On the Bulldogs’ next series (now trailing 43-10), Miguel Starks started taking the snaps.  He would lead The Citadel to the game’s final score on his second series of the game.

This I really didn’t understand.  If Starks was injured and couldn’t start, why put him in the game with 10 minutes left and the team trailing by five touchdowns?  I didn’t see the point in that.  If he had been healthy enough to play at all, he should have started over the clearly ailing Blanchard, or come into the game when the outcome was still in doubt.

Kevin Higgins noted that Edwards “doesn’t have much experience at all”, and that’s certainly true, but in retrospect I wonder if it would have been better for all concerned if Edwards had played instead of either Blanchard or Starks.

Of course, I’m just a yokel watching the game.  I don’t have any inside information on what the thinking was regarding playing Blanchard/Edwards/Starks.  It may be that Starks’ injury is the type that won’t get worse, but won’t get much better anytime soon.  If that’s the case, the coaches may have wanted to see what he was capable of doing, so they could take that into account for next week.

To have such a trouncing occur on Homecoming was also a bit dispiriting.  Without the TD at the end of the game, the Bulldogs would have suffered their worst Homecoming loss since 1989.  It’s not the best way to impress visiting alums, that’s for sure.

Things I may or may not have heard in and around the various reunion tents:

  • “Why don’t we run the wishbone?”
  • “Well, we’re a basketball school, anyway.”
  • “Maybe the guys on the team would play better if we rewarded a good season by letting them stay at the beach house during second semester, instead of the barracks.”
  • “How long have we been wearing navy pants?”
  • “Skip the orange juice, just give me what’s left in that bottle.”

A few observations about some off the field issues:

— Over the past couple of years, I’ve noticed that a significant number of cadets don’t make it to the game, and I’m not the only one who has spotted this trend.  At Saturday’s game I guesstimated that at least one-third, if not more, of the corps was not in the stands during the game.  Where were they?

This is something that the school administration needs to address before next season.  I know there are some legitimate absences, but the bottom line is that at least 90% of the corps of cadets needs to be in the stands at Johnson Hagood Stadium at every game.  Right now, that’s not happening.

— I’ve said this before, but if I attend too many more games at Johnson Hagood I’m going to eventually go deaf, thanks to the sound system speakers, which, apparently inspired by Spinal Tap, are set at “11”.  At least on this particular Saturday A) the referee’s microphone worked, and B) they didn’t play the “clap your hands” riff as the Bulldogs lined up to punt.

— Video board, good:  the Randy Bresnik message intro was great.  Excellent job setting that up.  I can’t imagine going into outer space.  Of course, I’m not crazy about heights…

— Video board, unintentionally amusing:  the Anthony Maldanado speech (through no fault of his own, of course).  Thank you.  Thank you.  Thank you.  Thank you.

— I thought the attendance was okay (Wofford didn’t bring a lot of fans).  Plenty of alums were wandering around, taking in the sights at the almost brand-new stadium, marveling at bathroom facilities that weren’t holdovers from the 19th century.  Everyone was ready to cheer; there just wasn’t anything worth cheering about, at least on the field.

— MVPs for the day, school of business administration:  both the Class of ’59 and the Class of ’69 presented enormous monetary contributions to the school on Saturday.  Major, major thumbs-up for those two classes.  Outstanding.

— MVPs for the day, school of recreation and leisure:  this would go to the Class of ’89, which had a huge throng of partiers at its reunion tent, all of whom appeared to be having a good time.  Great turnout by that group of youngsters.

The Citadel now has two games left on the schedule, road contests against UT-Chattanooga and Georgia Southern.  A winning season is still a possibility, but it will be a tall order to triumph against both an improved Mocs squad and the traditionally tough Eagles.  The Bulldogs will certainly have to play much, much better than they did on Saturday if they hope to win either of those games, much less both of them.

Football, Game 9: The Citadel vs. Wofford

I wrote about the series between Wofford and The Citadel during the preview for last season’s matchup between the two schools.  I’m not going to re-hash the history in this post; if anyone is interested, the link will serve to give some background.

This will be the third consecutive meeting between the Terriers and Bulldogs to be featured on SportSouth, which may be the first time The Citadel has played on TV against the same opponent three years in a row.  Tom Werme and Sam Wyche will again call the action from the booth.

When sporting events began to be regularly broadcast (first over radio, then television), some of the individuals running sports clubs feared that broadcasting games would lead to attendance declines, because people could just stay at home and listen to the radio, or watch on TV.  This notion was largely debunked by Hall of Fame baseball executive Larry MacPhail (in the 1930s and early 1940s).

Tangent:  this type of thinking had gone on for decades, beginning with clubs trying to deny telegraph operators the right to give scoring updates for baseball games.  In 1876, the first year of the National League’s existence, Hartford owner Morgan Bulkeley (one of the three most undeserving members of the Hall of Fame) attempted to bar representatives of the local telegraph company from buying tickets.

However, the question has to be asked:  if a game is on TV, why would someone choose to see it in person, rather than watch it on the tube?  Going to a game can be very inconvenient and expensive.  Instead, you could choose to not leave your house and watch the game (preferably in HD) while lying on your couch, with all the comforts of home, including a refrigerator, bathroom, and an HVAC system.

A lot of people go to the games anyway, as evidenced by the large crowds that see many different kinds of sporting events.  Even when it is noted that there are empty seats at an arena or stadium (like Doak Campbell Stadium for the North Carolina State-Florida State game last Saturday, the bottom line is that there were still a lot of people who went to the game (in that case, over 50,000).

Why do they go?  Well, tradition, I suppose, along with camaraderie — tailgating, seeing old friends in the same seats every year, that type of thing.  They go for the atmosphere.  Sometimes, that atmosphere isn’t so great.  However, occasionally there is a day to remember, a day when the electricity in the stadium isn’t just being provided by the power company.

It’s the kind of thing that gets people off their couches and in their cars and headed to the game, just for the chance to be a part of a high-voltage event, to be swept along in a moment of nirvana.  Maybe it won’t happen too often, but when it does, it makes up for all the times it didn’t.

Such an occurrence happened at Johnson Hagood Stadium in 1988.  Since this Saturday is Homecoming, I’m going to write briefly about the most memorable Homecoming game in the history of the stadium, which had the most electric atmosphere of any game I’ve ever seen at JHS.

***November 5, 1988 — Marshall (#1) vs. The Citadel (#19)***

It was a bright, sunny day when the Thundering Herd and the Bulldogs met on the gridiron.  Marshall had played in the I-AA title game the year before, losing 43-42 to Northeast Louisiana.  After that setback, the Thundering Herd hit the ground running in 1988.  By the time Marshall ventured to Charleston, it was 8-0 and ranked #1 in I-AA football.

The Thundering Herd featured a high-octane offense averaging 32.6 points per game.  Starting quarterback John Gregory threw for 3,127 yards and 21 touchdowns in 1988.  Many of Gregory’s throws went to Mike Barber, Marshall’s All-American wide receiver, who would be named I-AA player of the year in 1988 by the American Football Coaches Association.  Barber had caught 106 passes in 1987 and followed that up with “only” 79 catches in 1988.

When Gregory wasn’t throwing passes to Barber, he was tossing them to Sean Doctor, the Herd tight end, who in just two years in Huntington would accumulate 2,100 receiving yards.  Marshall could run the ball, too, as halfback Ron Darby gained 1,282 yards in 1988 and scored 16 touchdowns.

That was the juggernaut facing The Citadel, although the Bulldogs did not lack for confidence.  The Citadel came into the game 6-2, having won five straight games, including a 42-35 victory over Navy.  That triumph had been led by quarterback Gene Brown.  However, Brown was injured two weeks later against UT-Chattanooga.

Tommy Burriss had ably filled in at quarterback (no surprise, as he was the former starter) to lead the Bulldogs to victories over Boston University (yes, BU still played football back then) and East Tennessee State.  Brown’s return to the field was highly anticipated, though, as he was a truly gifted director of Charlie Taaffe’s wishbone attack.

A crowd of 20,011 showed up to see the matchup, the second time that season more than 20,000 people had attended a football game at Johnson Hagood Stadium.

After a scoreless first quarter, The Citadel would strike first, with Adrian Johnson scoring on a one-yard touchdown run.  Marshall would respond with a short field goal, but the score was only 6-3 at halftime (the Bulldogs having missed the PAT).

However, The Citadel’s offense began to control the game, dominating the time of possession.  Brown entered the game in the second quarter and the rushing yardage started to pile up.  Johnson rushed for 106 yards and Raymond Mazyck added 79 (on just 10 carries).  The Bulldogs as a team rushed for 359 yards, and perhaps more importantly ran 83 plays and kept Marshall’s high-powered offense off the field.

Even when Marshall had the ball, the Herd struggled.  In one sequence, the Herd would run eight consecutive plays inside the Bulldog 5-yard line without scoring a TD.  For the game, Marshall only managed 247 yards of total offense.

The crowd went into a frenzy when Phillip Florence took an end-around 33 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter, and when Johnson scored his second touchdown of the day in the fourth period, it was all over.  20-3, The Citadel.

Well, almost over.  As the game ended, the field was invaded by the corps of cadets, a number of whom headed straight for the goalpost in the south endzone.  The uprights were then torn down…okay, maybe not quite torn down.  The cadets were unable to rip the uprights away from the crossbar, and the crossbar remained attached to the stanchion.  It was the Cardinal Richelieu of goalposts.

It didn’t matter, though, as it was the thought that counted.  The administration didn’t seem to mind having to shell out some cash for a new goalpost, either, which may be the best indication of how amazing the atmosphere at the game really was.

Tangent:  the next week, Marshall’s Darby rushed for 262 yards against Western Carolina, which would have been a Southern Conference record — but on the same day, Brown rushed for 286 yards against VMI (on only 13 carries!) to shatter the mark.  Talk about bad timing for Darby.

Now that was a game worth attending.  What about Saturday’s game?  Will it be worth attending for Bulldog fans?

Wofford had enjoyed seven consecutive winning seasons before this year’s campaign.  The Terriers are 2-6, although it should be noted that Wofford played not one but two FBS schools this year, losing to both South Florida and Wisconsin.

However, eyebrows were raised around the conference when the Terriers (picked in the preseason to finish in the league’s top 3) lost 38-9 at UT-Chattanooga.  The Mocs have proven to be the most improved team in the league, but that loss clearly showed that Wofford had some unexpected issues.  The two main themes for the Terriers this year have been injuries and turnovers. 

Wofford entered the season with a fairly inexperienced squad (only nine returning starters), and that inexperience has been compounded by a rash of serious injuries, many of them season-ending.  Only ten players have started every game for the Terriers; in all, 34 different players have made at least one start. 

Many of the losses have been on defense (including pre-season All-SoCon pick Mitch Clark, who has only played one game this year).  The Terriers also suffered the loss of starting fullback Eric Breitenstein (who rushed for 121 yards against South Florida).  Wofford was already missing halfback Jeremy Marshall, who tore an ACL last season against Appalachian State; in this season’s matchup with the Mountaineers, another Terrier halfback, Derek Boyce, tore his ACL.

The Terriers run an option attack known as the “wingbone”, with the emphasis on run.  Wofford, with all its problems, still leads FCS in rushing, averaging 258 yards per game.  However, the Terriers are last in the division in passing, averaging only 70.5 yards per contest.

Quarterback Mitch Allen is completing just 45.2% of his passes.  That’s not a huge problem – after all, he doesn’t attempt that many – but while Allen has thrown five touchdown passes, he’s also thrown five interceptions (in just 62 attempts). 

Wofford as a team has thrown six picks, and has also fumbled 19 times, losing 13.  Losing two-thirds of their fumbles is a bit of bad luck, to be sure, but the Terriers are at heart a possession-oriented team.  Committing nineteen turnovers over eight games is not typical of a Wofford outfit.  The Terriers have committed 3+ turnovers in four games this season, losing all four.

The Terriers are still a dangerous offensive team, even with the turnover bugaboo, but have been inconsistent.  Wofford rolled up 537 yards of total offense against Appalachian State and another 426 against Western Carolina.  Unlike The Citadel’s last opponent, Samford, the Terriers are more than capable of creating big plays (Wofford has had five plays from the line of scrimmage of over 60 yards).

On the other hand, Wofford only had 170 yards of total offense against Elon (The Citadel can relate) and just 151 against UT-Chattanooga.  Part of the inconsistency can be traced to the Terriers’ third down conversion rate, which is just 38.3%. 

For the style of offense Wofford employs, that isn’t good enough.  The problems converting third down have led to Wofford averaging less than 29 minutes per game in time of possession, definitely not what an all-out running team like the Terriers wants.

When Wofford scores first, it is 2-0; when it doesn’t, 0-6.  Wofford is 0-5 when trailing after three quarters and 0-4 when scoring less than 20 points. 

Terrier opponents are averaging 387 yards per game in total offense.  Wofford has forced twelve turnovers in eight games, including five interceptions.  Much like its offense, the Terrier D has not had a lot of luck in the fumble department, forcing twenty but recovering only seven.  That’s the kind of statistic that will eventually turn in Wofford’s favor; let’s hope it doesn’t happen this week.

Wofford’s opponents have been in the “red zone” 36 times this season, and have scored touchdowns on 26 of those occasions.

The Terriers have a solid kick return game, led by running back Mike Rucker.   Wofford has a net punting average of 35.9, which is quite good.  The Terriers have only attempted four field goals all season, making two (both against Elon).

In last year’s game, The Citadel did a good job offensively but couldn’t stop the Terriers, as Wofford had 409 yards of total offense, including 279 yards rushing.  Andre Roberts had a huge game (14 receptions, 190 yards, 3 TDs) but it wasn’t enough, as Wofford stayed one step ahead of the Bulldogs the whole way, committing no turnovers and converting all three of its fourth-down attempts.

You can bet that Roberts will be priority #1 for the Wofford defense, but you can say that about any defense that faces The Citadel.  Who winds up throwing the ball in Roberts’ direction is anybody’s guess. 

What I hope happens is that if both Bart Blanchard and Miguel Starks are healthy, the coaches rotate them by series instead of by play.  If one of them is moving the team down the field, then that’s the guy that needs to stay in the game.  I’m not forgetting about Tommy Edwards, either.  He got the job done against Samford, and he’ll get the call if need be against the Terriers. 

I would like to see more of the type of playcalling used in the game against Furman, which seemed to suit the offensive line.  Speaking of the o-line, that unit will need to contain Wofford defensive end Ameet Pall, a Montreal native who is having a fine season for the Terriers.  Kevin Higgins was quick to note Pall’s abilities during his press conference on Monday.

It’s been too long since The Citadel won in this series.  Hopes are high that the Bulldogs will end that streak on Saturday, in front of an appreciative Homecoming crowd.  I am not so sure, to be honest, but I’ll be there cheering them on regardless.

Go East, young man

The Citadel 28, Samford 16.

There are two obvious storylines from this game, from the perspective of The Citadel.  The performance of Tommy Edwards is one; the success of the Bulldog defense is the other.  First, Tommy Edwards…

Miguel Starks started the game at quarterback after an outstanding effort against Furman, and soon discovered that the Samford defense was more than ready for him.  Starks was in the game for seven offensive drives (not counting Andre Roberts’ fumbled punt), and on those seven drives The Citadel picked up only two first downs.

It was a lot like the Elon game, except that the opposition wasn’t constantly scoring following the Bulldogs’ three-and-outs.  The Citadel was lucky not to be trailing by more than ten points at halftime.  By then, Starks was out of the game, having injured his ankle — not the ankle that was already hurt, but the other one.  This has not been a good year for ankles attached to Bulldog quarterbacks.

Edwards came into the game with just 37 seconds left in the half, and I thought that The Citadel would just run out the clock.  After all, he is a “true” freshman walk-on who admitted later that his goal entering the season was just to make the travel squad.

Instead, Edwards came out throwing, completing four passes for 30 yards (and having a long pass dropped).  The Bulldogs ran out of time and had to attempt a long field goal (53 yards), which missed, but it was still the team’s most impressive drive of the half.  During that initial drive led by Edwards, The Citadel picked up two first downs, just as many as it had made in the first 29:23 of the contest (to go with just 70 yards of total offense pre-Edwards).

At first there was some suspicion that Samford might have been playing a “prevent” defense, and would have something different in store for Edwards in the second half, but the Cadets continued to improve offensively.  The Citadel started winning the field position battle (key against a grind-it-out team like Samford), and began its second possession of the third quarter on its own 45 yard line.

On first down, Edwards rolled right, then turned around and threw across the field to an open Van Dyke Jones, who slalomed his way to a touchdown.  It was an excellent play call, perfectly executed.

After that, momentum favored The Citadel.  Two possessions later, Andre Roberts returned a punt 41 yards into Samford territory and the home team was in business, eventually taking the lead early in the fourth quarter on another TD pass from Edwards, this one to Alex Sellars.

The defense took care of the rest of the game, with Cortez Allen intercepting two passes, running the second one back for a TD.  He also returned the first one for a score, but one of the officials intervened, mysteriously ruling him out of bounds on the Samford 5 yard line (oh, those wacky SoCon officials).  Terrell Dallas scored on the next play anyway.

For any freshman quarterback to arrive on campus in August, come off the bench in a midseason game and lead a team to victory would be impressive.  It’s even more impressive for a freshman at The Citadel to do it, given what “knob” year is like, and particularly when the QB is a walk-on.  Even more unusual, at least for The Citadel, is the fact that Edwards is a native of California.

Over the years, not a lot of football players from the Golden State have plied their trade at the military college, which I suppose isn’t that big of a surprise.  No one can say for certain how many Californians have played for The Citadel, but I would guess that less than twenty football players from California have lettered for the Bulldogs over the years.  As it is, the media guide only lists five, including Valley Village’s McDonald Love (captain of the 1935 team) and North Hollywood’s Brian Baima (an all-SoCon split end in 1971).

When Edwards threw his second TD pass on Saturday, he almost certainly set the career record for TD passes thrown by a Californian at The Citadel, breaking the mark previously held by wide receiver Scott Flanagan of Camarillo, who threw a touchdown pass against Florida last season (off a trick play).  If it is any consolation to Flanagan, he still holds the road record in the category…

It was a red-letter day for the defense (or perhaps I should say a navy and light blue day, given the mismatched uniform combination The Citadel wore at Johnson Hagood).  Samford is a run-first, run-second, and then pass if necessary kind of team, and the Birmingham Bulldogs were held to 35 net rushing yards (which included four sacks).  Last season bruising running back Chris Evans rushed for 174 yards against The Citadel; this season, he was held to 52.

The defense kept The Citadel in the game after some early miscues, including a bad punt and Roberts’ uncharacteristic fumble.  Holding Samford to a field goal after the Roberts bobble was critical to the eventual victory.  The Citadel recorded ten tackles for loss, including a combined six from starting defensive tackles Terrence Reese and Kyle Anderson.  Add in the two Cortez Allen interceptions, and you couldn’t ask for much more from the D.

It was easily the most complete game of the season by The Citadel’s defense, although to be honest I thought Samford had a rather unimaginative game plan.  Even a couple of trick plays seemed halfhearted.  Samford lacked dynamism (no run plays of more than 13 yards; no pass plays for more than 20) and didn’t seem to have any answers when it struggled to run the ball, especially when field position in the second half turned against it.

Samford would wind up with 46 pass attempts.  Of those 46, there was just one recorded post route (which went for Samford’s final TD), one deep in route, and one deep out (the pass Allen intercepted and returned for a touchdown).  All three of those passes came in the fourth quarter after Samford had fallen behind by two scores.

Samford actually finished the game with more first downs than The Citadel (15 to 12).  However, other than the final drive, Samford never moved the ball more than the 30 yards it gained on its opening possession.

All in all, it was a good day for The Citadel.  As to which quarterback starts against Wofford, who knows.  Jeff Hartsell informs us that the fourth-string quarterback is Irmo’s Brian Hill; maybe he’ll get a shot.  It doesn’t matter as long as the Bulldogs can beat Wofford, which hasn’t happened in a while.  It will also be Homecoming.  The countdown to Saturday begins.

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.

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.