Football, Game 7: The Citadel vs. Furman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Too bad the game is football and not horseshoes

The Citadel played well on Saturday against Appalachian State.  After getting drubbed repeatedly over the past few seasons by the Mountaineers, the Bulldogs held their own for 60 minutes, which was a nice change of pace.  Alas, the game lasted longer than 60 minutes, and overtime was not kind.

Let’s make this a ramble:

— I thought that the playcalling on offense by the Bulldog coaching staff was excellent throughout the game.  Bart Blanchard and Miguel Starks were mixed-and-matched very well, a task that had to have been made more difficult by Blanchard’s ankle problem.

The TD pass to Alex Sellars was perfectly timed and executed.  I really liked the commitment to running the ball, and it paid off (214 yards rushing).

My only criticism would be about the sequence of plays called in overtime.  I am not sure about the first and second down calls, and as for third down…

When you have the ball first in overtime, you really don’t want to be in must-attempt-FG mode if you can help it.  The Citadel had a third-and-long it needed to convert.

Given the overall situation, I think it would have been best to run the play using the starting QB who had displayed a lot of composure during the game, and who has now thrown 6 TD passes in his last two games.  His first option would have been the player who is almost certainly the best wide receiver in school history.

In other words, I think the ball needed to be in the hands of Blanchard and/or Andre Roberts on that play.  I’m not a coach, though.

— There were only seven accepted penalties by the two teams combined in the game.  However, five of them came in the fourth quarter.  It was like watching a bizarro NHL game.

— Sam Keeler can’t think about the kick he missed in OT.  He needs to think about the 50-yarder and the 45-yarder he made in the first half.  His kicking was a plus for the Bulldogs on the day overall, without question.

— Defensively the Bulldogs did a fair job of bending but not breaking in the first half.  It got tougher to keep Appalachian State out of the end zone as the game went on.  The overall strategy seemed sound; the Bulldogs were hampered by a blown coverage that led to the tying TD in the fourth quarter, and by some shoddy tackling.  Poor tackling was the proximate cause of the Mountaineers’ second touchdown.  That is something which must improve.

The Bulldogs did not create a turnover on defense.  If The Citadel could have forced just one turnover, it likely would have won the game.  The Bulldogs’ D came into the game with six interceptions and three recovered fumbles, but just two of those turnovers have come while the outcome of a game was still in doubt (both against Presbyterian, with Cortez Allen accounting for each of them).

— Van Dyke Jones’ 69-yard TD run was one of the better runs I’ve seen by a Bulldog.  Maybe it wasn’t the best ever at Johnson Hagood Stadium (Stump Mitchell’s effort against VMI in 1980 comes to mind), but it was truly special.

— Attendance was announced as 14,238.  That seemed about right to me as I surveyed the stands.  However, that’s just how many people were inside Johnson Hagood Stadium.  What was truly striking was the attendance outside the stadium.  The parking lots were packed.

There are now lots of fans who tailgate but don’t go to the game itself, and I don’t mean the groups where a couple of people remain to watch over the tailgating equipment while everyone else goes to the game.  I’m talking about gatherings where almost no one goes to the game, where everyone just remains in the parking lot the entire time.

I mentioned that the tailgating scene could be perceived as “too good” when I wrote about attendance a couple of months ago.  It seems to me, though, that the tailgating-only crowd has increased exponentially as of late, thanks to the ability to incorporate the joys of satellite television (along with flat-screen TVs) into a tailgate setup.

There was an article about “TV Tailgating” in Columbia, S.C.’s The State newspaper on Sunday about this very subject.  That story focused on people watching South Carolina play on TV while stationed in one of the parking lots outside Williams-Brice Stadium.

Of course, at The Citadel the game inside the stadium is rarely on television.  Folks tailgating during the game watch other contests on TV while listening to Darren Goldwater call the Bulldogs’ games on the radio.  At least, I hope they’re listening to the Bulldogs on the radio…

Twenty years ago, if the parking lots had been as full as they were on Saturday, I believe there would have been at least 17,000 people watching the game inside JHS, perhaps more.  However, twenty years ago there weren’t portable satellite dishes, and when people talked about “plasma” they were referring to blood and not TVs.

I don’t know what The Citadel’s administration can do about that.  I don’t know if it wants or needs to do anything about it, either.

— It was Military Appreciation Day, and thus the fans who did venture inside Johnson Hagood were treated to a good show, including a flyover by a World War II-era B25 bomber, a parachutist bringing the game ball (landed on the 45 yard line — nice job!), and the Parris Island Marine Band performing at halftime.

There was a pull-up bar station in the concessions area under the stadium, so that future Marines could showcase their upper body strength in what could have been construed as an attempt to impress women, but was undoubtably meant just for recruiting purposes.

— Also underneath the stadium was a table for The Citadel’s club hockey team, which was doing a little fundraising by raffling off a motorcycle.  A cadet wearing a complete goalie outfit was part of the show.  I couldn’t decide if his uniform was terribly awesome, or awesomely terrible.  Click on the link to judge for yourself.

— Fourth game played, fourth game wearing navy pants, fourth game with a terrible-looking uniform.  Maybe The Citadel should wear orange jerseys and yellow helmets with them.

— The sound system is still a bit too loud, in my opinion.  A few other stadium music/sound observations…

1)  In the third quarter, someone thought it would be a good idea to play the “Everybody Clap Your Hands” snippet while The Citadel was punting.  I guess the fans were supposed to get excited about the home team not converting on third down.  “One hop this time; right foot let’s punt.”
2)  “Cotton Eye Joe”?  Really?  Probably made the App State fans feel right at home.  It’s also a staple at Yankee Stadium.  Why not bring in Ronan Tynan while you’re at it?
3)  I liked the NFL Films-style music, but it sounded a bit tinny over the speakers.  Maybe a better recording is needed.
4)  The referee’s microphone cutting in and out surely did wonders for sales of Advil and Tylenol.

— I spotted Jeff Hartsell of The Post and Courier hustling down to the field at the five-minute mark of the fourth quarter.  As he got about halfway down the stadium steps, Appalachian State scored the tying touchdown.  Hartsell hesitated briefly, then started to head back to the press box (as if he had forgotten something), and then turned back and went to the sideline area.  Perhaps he was saying to himself, “I really need to update Bulldog Bites!”

— App State fans in the East side stands tried to start an “ASU” chant in the third quarter, only to be drowned out by a lusty rendition of “Hey Baby” by the corps of cadets.  The Mountaineer supporters seemed confused by the choice of song (hard to blame them) and quieted down almost immediately.  I still could survive without it, but for that moment, “Hey Baby” worked.  Well played, cadets.

All in all, it was a good game, but it was still a loss.  Next for the Bulldogs is a trip to Elon.  Getting a win there will not be easy, but if The Citadel plans to contend in the conference, it will be necessary.

Football, week 1: The Citadel vs. North Carolina

There will be a lot of blue on display in this game.  If Kenan Stadium could sing a song on Saturday, it might sound like this:

I’m blue da ba dee da ba di da ba dee da ba di da ba dee da ba di…

That’s right, an Eiffel 65 reference.  What other game preview gives you that?

The Citadel begins another football season this Saturday.  Doesn’t it seem like the anticipation increases every year?  Of course, this year part of the reason Bulldog fans want the season to hurry up and get here is so the team doesn’t lose any more running backs before the first game.

Some fast facts:

–Series:  UNC leads 3-0 (all three games played in Chapel Hill)
–Scores:  14-7 UNC (1915), 50-0 UNC (1939), 45-14 UNC (1986)
–The Citadel alltime against current ACC schools:  6-63-2
–The Citadel alltime against ACC schools (when those schools were actually members of the ACC):  0-24

The last time the Bulldogs beat a current ACC school was in 1931, when The Citadel edged Clemson, 6-0 (in a game played in Florence, of all places).  The Citadel also tied Florida State in 1960, 0-0.  The Bulldogs haven’t seriously threatened an ACC opponent on the gridiron since 1976, when Clemson slipped past a solid Bobby Ross squad, 10-7.

The 1939 UNC team that thrashed the Bulldogs 50-0 was pretty good, going 8-1-1 that season.  Alas, the loss was to Duke.  The coach of the Tar Heels at the time was Raymond “Bear” Wolf.  Yes, “Bear” Wolf.  Years before, Wolf had been a baseball player; he played in one game in the majors, for Cincinnati, getting one more at bat than Moonlight Graham did (speaking of UNC alums).  Wolf had a good run in Chapel Hill until 1941, when he went 3-7.

The new coach was Jim Tatum, who is in the College Football Hall of Fame, but mostly for his work at Maryland.  Tatum only coached at UNC (his alma mater) for one year before enlisting in the Navy; he would later have enormous success in College Park, winning a national title with the Terrapins in 1953, before returning to North Carolina in 1956.  Tatum coached three more seasons in Chapel Hill before dying suddenly of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever in 1959.  He was only 46.

While Tatum was building a championship team at Maryland (he also coached Oklahoma for one season), UNC was having a very good run of its own, thanks in large part to the exploits of the great Charlie “Choo Choo” Justice.  Justice is surely one of the best college football players not to win the Heisman Trophy (he was the runner-up twice).  North Carolina played in three major bowl games during this period, the only three times the Heels have ever played in a major bowl.  UNC lost all three games.

After some good (and bad) seasons through the 1960s, UNC would have another outstanding streak of success in the early 1970s under Bill Dooley, including an 11-1 season in 1972, marred only by a loss to Ohio State.  Interestingly, North Carolina did not finish the year in the top 10 of either poll.  Dooley would move on to Virginia Tech (and later Wake Forest).

Dick Crum took over the program from Dooley, and had some excellent seasons of his own, including 1980, when the Tar Heels (featuring Lawrence Taylor) would again go 11-1, again go undefeated in ACC play — and again struggle against a big-name non-conference opponent, this time Oklahoma (losing 41-7).  That 1980 season marks the last time UNC won the ACC title.

The next year could arguably serve as a microcosm of North Carolina’s football history.  UNC, led by tailback Kelvin Bryant, scored 161 points in its first three games in 1981.  Bryant scored an amazing 15 touchdowns in those three matchups.  Then, against Georgia Tech, Bryant injured his knee.  He would miss the next four games.  UNC hung on for two games, but after improving its record to 6-0, the Tar Heels were soundly beaten at home by a mediocre South Carolina team, 31-13.

North Carolina rebounded to beat Maryland, and then played Clemson in a game that was essentially for the ACC title.  The Heels had won 11 straight ACC contests, and the Tigers were undefeated (and had beaten Herschel Walker and Georgia).  It was the first time two ACC schools had met in football when both were ranked in the AP top 10, and it would be a memorable encounter.  Clemson prevailed, 10-8, in a game where the intensity was palpable, even to TV viewers.

North Carolina would not lose again that season, buoyed to an extent by the return of Bryant for the final two regular-season games and the Gator Bowl (where the Tar Heels would defeat Arkansas).  There was, however, one final twist of the knife.  From the “Scorecard” section of Sports Illustrated (January 11, 1982):

They say you can prove anything with statistics, and in the case of North Carolina running back Kelvin Bryant, official NCAA figures would appear to show that he didn’t exist in 1981. NCAA rules specify that to qualify as a season statistical leader a football player must appear in at least 75% of his team’s regular-season games; for the Tar Heels, who played an 11-game schedule, that meant a minimum of eight games. Because of knee surgery, Bryant played in only seven games, but he made the most of his limited participation, to put it mildly, scoring 108 points. The NCAA determines scoring leaders on a per-game basis, and it awarded the scoring title to USC’s Marcus Allen, who averaged 12.5 points a game. Because he played too few games, Bryant, with a 15.4 average, didn’t qualify to be the scoring champion, which may be fair enough. But Bryant also was excluded from the list of 25 top scorers even though—surely there’s an injustice here—he ranked fifth in total points behind Allen (138 points), Georgia’s Herschel Walker (120), SMU’s Eric Dickerson (114) and McNeese State’s Buford Johnson (l10). Absurdly, Iowa State’s Dwayne Crutchfield, who scored just 104 points, is listed in fifth place, while Bryant and his 108 points are nowhere to be seen.

This little blurb came in the same edition of the magazine  that featured Clemson wide receiver Perry Tuttle on the cover, as the Tigers had just won the national championship by defeating Nebraska in the Orange Bowl.  Talk about a double whammy of what might have beens…

Crum never had a team that good again, and by the late 1980s the program was beginning to fade.  Mack Brown then arrived and basically decided to start over.  After consecutive 1-10 seasons, that may have looked like a mistake, but Brown gradually built things back up, and in his last two seasons in Chapel Hill the team went 10-2 and 11-1 .  He couldn’t quite get that one big win to push the program to the next level, though, as the Heels could not beat Florida State.  After that 11-1 season (in 1997), Brown left for a program that he felt he could push over the top — Texas.

As the above paragraphs illustrate, UNC has had an occasionally-close-but-no-cigar kind of history in football — sometimes good, sometimes very good, but never quite getting over the hump (at least nationally) for various reasons, and thus always remaining in the large shadow cast by the school’s basketball program.  As the years have gone by, the degree of difficulty in trying to escape that shadow seems to have increased.

After ten seasons of around .500 ball under two coaches, the folks at UNC decided to shake things up and bring in Butch Davis, who is known as somebody who can really recruit (proof:  the 2001 Miami Hurricanes, which had 16 future NFL first-round draft picks on its roster).  Whether Davis can put it all together at North Carolina is the big question.  There are high hopes in Chapel Hill this season, however, as he returns 38 lettermen (including 15 starters) from a team that won eight games last season and is ranked #20 in the USA Today Coaches’ Poll.

One of those returning starters is quarterback T.J. Yates, who presumably will have fully recovered from an injury suffered this past spring while playing Ultimate Frisbee.  I’m guessing that summer activities for the Tar Heels were restricted to checkers and backgammon in an attempt to keep everyone healthy.

Speaking of UNC quarterbacks, one of the curious things about the Heels’ football history is the lack of success of any North Carolina quarterback in the NFL (at least as a QB).  There have been 182 UNC football players who went on to the NFL (as of the conclusion of the 2008-09 season), but only two of them have been quarterbacks — and one of them, Jim Camp, never threw a pass in the league.  The other, Scott Stankavich, played in only four career games (no starts); two of those games came as a “replacement player” during the 1987 players’ strike.

Ronald Curry has had a decent career in the NFL, but as a wide receiver.  Curry has attempted four passes in the league, completing none of them.  There have actually been fifteen former Tar Heels who have attempted at least one NFL pass.  Only six of them, however, have actually completed one.  Stankavage is one of those six, but the Heel with the most yards passing in the NFL is halfback Ed Sutton, who threw for 146 yards in his career, with one TD.  Don McCauley is the only other UNC player to throw a TD pass in the NFL.

I totalled all the NFL passing statistics for former UNC players.  I also totalled the passing statistics for The Citadel’s Stump Mitchell (who threw nine passes during his career, including a TD toss to Roy Green) and Paul Maguire (who threw one pass during his career, completing it for 19 yards).  Check out the cumulative stats comparison:

UNC:  19-70, 315 yards, 2 TDs, 6 INTs, QB rating of 19.6
The Citadel:  5-10, 102 yards, 1 TD, 0 INTs, QB rating of 119.6

A 100-point difference in QB rating?!  Advantage, Bulldogs.  Of course, that won’t mean anything on Saturday.

Last season, the Bulldogs were 4-8.  This followed a 7-4 campaign in 2007 that had fans thinking a return to the FCS playoffs was not far away.  Instead, the Bulldogs lost six straight games during the course of the 2008 season, narrowly avoided a seventh straight defeat to a poor UT-Chattanooga squad, and then got pummeled by Tim Tebow and eventual BCS champion Florida in the season finale.

Some of those games were close (The Citadel lost three Southern Conference games by a total of 12 points), but on the whole the 4-8 record was a fair reflection of the Bulldogs’ play.  Comparing some league-only statistics from the 2007 and 2008 seasons is illuminating.  Ignoring the raw totals, which are a touch misleading (scoring was down in the SoCon last season as compared to 2007), and looking at league rankings:

-Scoring defense:  4th (2007), 8th (2008)
-Pass efficiency defense:  3rd (2007), 9th (2008)
-Red Zone defense:  2nd (2007), 9th (2008)
-Turnover margin:  2nd (2007), 5th (2008)
-3rd down conversion offense:  2nd (2007), 5th (2008)
-3rd down conversion defense:  2nd (2007, 5th (2008)

That’s basically the story of the 2008 season right there.  The defense had trouble getting off the field (SoCon opponents completed over 64% of their passes against The Citadel, and the Bulldogs only intercepted two passes all season in league play).  Inside the 20, The Citadel’s defense had no answers (allowing 23 touchdowns in 31 red zone situations).

Offensively, the running game struggled, as rushing yardage per game dropped by one-third.  Perhaps more ominously, the number of third downs converted via the rush fell substantially.  This also affected the offense’s red zone success rate, as the team scored only 18 touchdowns in 34 opportunities inside the 20 (the worst ratio in the league), and led to over-reliance on an erratic (I’m being kind here) placekicking game.  The Bulldogs only made 7 of 12 field goals attempted in red zone possessions.  No other conference team missed more than one such attempt all season.

After a season like that, it’s not surprising changes were made.  The Bulldogs are going to return to a 4-3 defense after last year’s attempt at a 3-4 resulted in the D getting pushed all over the gridiron.  That rather obvious lack of physicality was also addressed by an aggressive offseason conditioning program.  There are a couple of new defensive coaches, too.

There has been a good pre-season buzz about the defensive line, which is nice, but there also needs to be more playmaking from the linebackers and secondary.  In other words:  get stops and force turnovers.  The key is to corral more interceptions (fumble recoveries tend to be somewhat random).  Scoring touchdowns on defense would be a plus, too, but you have to get the turnovers first before you can think six.  The Bulldogs have recorded 13 sacks in conference play each of the last two seasons; a few more this year certainly couldn’t hurt.

The offensive line should be strong, although illness has been a problem in fall practice, what with one lineman suffering from an acid-reflux problem and another battling mononucleosis.  That’s still much better than the Bulldogs’ running back situation.  The starter for UNC may be walk-on freshman Bucky Kennedy, walk-on freshman Remi Biakabutuka, or one of the backup bagpipers.  Biakabutuka would definitely be the choice if the opening-game opponent were Ohio State rather than North Carolina, as just the name “Biakabutuka” on his jersey would be enough to unnerve the Buckeyes, thanks to his older brother Tim.

Another potential threat as a runner is backup quarterback Miguel Starks, who last year impressed many observers just by standing on the sideline during games.  However, he’s never played a down of college football.  It will be interesting to see what he can do once he gets on the field.

I’m of the opinion that the incumbent starting quarterback, Bart Blanchard, didn’t have that bad a season last year, as I don’t think he got much help from the rest of the backfield (and the offensive line seemed to lack consistency).  He is a bit limited as a runner, which is not ideal in Kevin Higgins’ offense, but that was true the year before as well and the Bulldogs managed just fine when he stepped in for Duran Lawson.  Higgins wants him to have a better completion percentage, but part of the problem Blanchard had last season trying to avoid incompletions was a limited number of passing targets — basically, his options were the tight ends and Andre Roberts.

Of course, Roberts is a nice target to have.  It would really help Roberts (and Blanchard) if a second receiver emerged this season (Kevin Hardy?), which never happened last year.  If another Bulldog wideout does develop into a threat, Roberts could wind up with fewer catches but more yards per reception.  Roberts in space is a big play waiting to happen, as anyone who has watched him return punts can attest.  I’m glad he’s not going to be returning kickoffs this year, though.  I worry about him wearing down over the course of the season.

The placekicking needs to be much improved.  Last year was just not acceptable.  The Bulldogs also must replace Mark Kasper, who was a solid punter for four seasons (second in the league in net punting last year).  The Citadel needs to improve its kickoff coverage (next-to-last in the conference in 2008).  Basically, the special teams must get better across the board (with the exception of the punt return team, which thanks to Roberts was the nation’s best unit).

As for Saturday’s game, a lot depends on whether Blanchard and Roberts have fully recovered from sprained ankles each suffered during fall practice.  If they are both good to go, I would expect the Bulldogs to be reasonably competitive against North Carolina.

While the Heels return 15 starters, they must replace some excellent wide receivers (including Hakeem Nicks) and two starters on their offensive line.  UNC’s o-line has taken a bit of a hit in the pre-season with some injuries and attrition (nothing like The Citadel’s running back situation, though).  The starting group should still be solid, however.

T.J. Yates should be okay after his frisbee ordeal.  This will be his third year starting games at QB for UNC.  Yates is good at taking care of the ball (only four interceptions last season).  UNC has a nice corps of running backs, led by Shaun Draughn, who rushed for 866 yards in 2008.  The Tar Heels will definitely need to find some new wideouts, as no returning receiver caught more than 11 passes last year.

UNC rotates a number of defensive linemen, and almost all of them are very good athletes (and most of them are huge).  Marvin Austin has first-round pick potential, Cam Thomas has all the makings of a future NFL nosetackle, and Ladson native Robert Quinn won the ACC’s Piccolo Award after recovering from a brain tumor to have an outstanding freshman campaign.

Despite this embarrassment of riches, the Tar Heels didn’t do a particularly good job creating sacks last season (only 22 all season; the d-line only had 5.5 of those).  Still, this group will be a formidable challenge for The Citadel’s offensive line.

North Carolina has a really good trio of starting linebackers, led by Bruce Carter, who doubles as a great kick-blocker (five last year).  The defensive backfield should be excellent, with several ball hawks ready to repeat last year’s success in intercepting passes (the Heels had 20 picks).

UNC did struggle defensively on third down conversions, ranking last in the ACC in that category.

North Carolina’s special teams were okay last year, although its net punting was mediocre.  The Heels will be breaking in a new punter this season, which might be good news for Andre Roberts (and Mel Capers), although first The Citadel’s defense has to actually force a punt.

Last season UNC opened with McNeese State, and struggled before finally winning the game 35-27.  It should be pointed out that the Cowboys were a solid FCS club (finishing 7-4, and featuring a quality offense), and that the game was affected by a lightning delay.  If anything, that relatively close call may make the North Carolina players more wary of FCS opposition.

The goals for this game, from The Citadel’s point of view, are for the team to be as competitive as possible, and to avoid major injuries.  It isn’t realistic to expect a victory, particularly against a pre-season Top 20 team.  The Bulldogs just want to make UNC work for a win.

To do that, avoiding turnovers on offense is a must.  I suspect that The Citadel is not going to have much of a rushing attack in this game, which is going to be a problem.  It’s also going to be a tough game to break in a new punter.  I think the Bulldog defense has a chance to establish itself to a certain extent.  However, the UNC offense is not turnover-prone and is more than capable of grinding out drives (although this may not be a bad thing for The Citadel; the fewer big plays, the better).

Obviously, the players won’t be thinking the way I’m thinking.  They’re traveling to Chapel Hill looking for a victory, which is a good thing.  That’s how they should approach this game.  Besides, you never know what might happen.  After all, my fantasy football team is called The Jack Crowes.

I’m just ready for kickoff.