Review: Chattanooga

Chattanooga 28, The Citadel 10.

Kevin Higgins quote #1:

“The coaches talked all week about challenging our players to come out and play with more intensity than the past week, and as we watched the game and evaluated everything, they did just that.”

Kevin Higgins quote #2:

“They got off to a 14-0 start, which put us in a hole.”

No, he didn’t say those two things one right after the other (although they are the first two quotes you see when you click on the press conference notes page on the school’s athletics website).  He might as well have, however.  It’s testimony to the fact that intensity only goes so far.  Besides, the other team is likely to bring some intensity of its own to the table.

It would have been nice if the Bulldogs had decided to “play with more intensity” against Western Carolina.  Perhaps if that had been the case, The Citadel would have beaten the Catamounts.  However, Chattanooga is a better team than WCU, and it showed on Saturday.  In its second year under Russ Huesman, UTC has already passed The Citadel as a football program, something that will surely frustrate Bulldog fans already antsy about Kevin Higgins’ tenure as head coach of the Bulldogs.

I’m not one of those fans, but I’ll say this.  I don’t want to hear any more discussion about a Bulldog team being flat, or not being intense enough — whatever you want to call it — for a football game.  There are only eleven football games on the schedule. How hard can it be for the team to mentally prepare and focus for each and every one?

I realize that to a certain extent I’m still harping on the loss to the Catamounts while writing a review about the Chattanooga game, but I make no apologies.  It was an embarrassing loss, and deserves to be acknowledged as such, repeatedly if necessary.

Kevin Higgins can’t do anything about Southern Conference officiating, however.  For the second time in three years, a Parents’ Day game at Johnson Hagood Stadium featured less-than-stellar work from the men in stripes.  It wasn’t quite as bad as the Elon game two years ago (that was a very special episode of SoCon officiating ineptitude, although I don’t think Mayim Bialik was involved), but it was poor nonetheless.

Most of the trouble on Saturday had to do with spotting the ball.  I’m including in that category the missed call on UTC’s first touchdown, which was clearly a fumble that occurred before the ball crossed the goal line.  There were other issues (notably a mystery pass interference call that kept a drive alive for the Mocs), but mainly it was the spotting.

One of the neat things about Parents’ Day is that a larger number of folks than normal are seeing a football game at The Citadel for the first time.  I shudder to think what goes through the minds of people experiencing their first taste of SoCon officiating.

I know that over time things are supposed to even out, but somehow I’ve missed seeing a lot of the makeup calls…in all sports.  For example, if you peruse the league statistics for women’s soccer (through Sunday’s play), you will find that only two players have been red-carded in league matches so far this season.  Just two.

Yes, both from The Citadel.  I guess we have a bunch of Nigel de Jong wannabes on our squad.

(Of course, if they were really de Jong wannabes they wouldn’t have been sent off, as his special brand of violence seems immune from on-field censure.)

Tangent:  The women’s soccer team at The Citadel is 4-2 in the SoCon despite seeing red on occasion, and looks well-positioned to make the league tourney for the first time in school history.  That would be a tremendous accomplishment for Bob Winch and the program.  I’m hoping the team is a little greedy, though; a top-4 finish would give the Bulldogs a first-round home game at WLI Field.  At this point, it’s within reach.

I’m going to be traveling over the next couple of weeks.  I may have to make a post about that team when I get back, if I have time.

Okay, back to (American) football.

I want to emphasize the officiating didn’t cost The Citadel the game against Chattanooga.  No, the Bulldogs just weren’t good enough on Saturday.  The headline for Jeff Hartsell’s game story referred to “missed opportunities”.  I think that’s about right.

Small things hurt the Bulldogs.  A snap infraction on the Chattanooga 1-yard line.  An overthrown pass on a trick play that was going to go for a TD.  A receiver not quite strong enough to hold off a defender in the end zone, turning a potential TD into an interception.  Giving up first downs on third-and-six (or more) three times during the game’s decisive drive.  (UTC was 6-for-10 on third-down conversions.)

The Citadel was unable to create a big play on offense, other than punter Cass Couey’s 33-yard run for a first down (an outstanding call, perfectly executed).  UTC basically sat back on defense, counting on the young offense not being able to sustain a drive with a succession of positive plays.  It was a sound strategy, and it worked. Chattanooga’s D only broke down twice, on Couey’s run (which set up the Bulldogs’ lone touchdown) and on the receiver pass that could have been a a TD.

The Mocs rushed for 222 yards on 41 carries.  I was disappointed that the Bulldog defense allowed that many rush yards.  It wasn’t a terrible effort overall by the D, certainly not as frustrating as the week before, but it wasn’t anything special, either. On the fourth-quarter drive that iced the game, The Citadel needed a big play from someone on its defense.  It never got it (although the aforementioned PI call might have made a difference).

Incidentally, I suspect Chattanooga’s biggest problem in its quest for a playoff bid is going to be its special teams.  Against the upper-echelon teams in the league, I’m not sure UTC is dynamic enough to overcome some of the issues it has in that area. That said, Huesman clearly has his program moving forward.

I’m going to try to put a small preview of the Appalachian State game together over the next couple of days.  The next week or so will see a sharp drop in word count.  Of course, that may be a good thing…

Football, Game 6: The Citadel vs. Chattanooga

I’ll begin this post with what may become an annual riff on UTC nomenclature.  As I noted last year, trying to determine what to call the athletic teams of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga isn’t the simplest thing in the world to do:

Recently the school began using a ‘C’ mark, for “Chattanooga”.  The university’s teams have variously been referred to over the years as “UT-Chattanooga”, “Tennessee-Chattanooga”, “UTC”, and “Chattanooga”.

The nickname/mascot history is even more tangled.  A “moccasin” used to be a snake, then a shoe, then a cartoon Cherokee Indian called ‘Chief Moccanooga’, and now a mockingbird train conductor (and “moccasin” has morphed into “moc”, for mockingbird).

There is an explanatory page on the school’s website detailing some of the nickname history.

I’ve actually made a change from last year in how I am referring to the school.  While the school itself is still called the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, it is now consistently calling its athletic teams “Chattanooga” while still using the “UTC” acronym.  Therefore, I’ll drop the “UT-Chattanooga” usage.

Irrelevant but semi-interesting:  while surfing UTC’s website (the main one, not the athletics site) I found out that UTC was actually a private school until 1969, when it merged with the University of Tennessee.  Between 1889 and 1907, it was called U.S. Grant University.

Both UTC and The Citadel have had football programs that have been in the doldrums for a decade or more.  However, the Mocs appear poised to finally move up the ladder in the Southern Conference, under the direction of Russ Huesman.  Huesman inherited a program that had gone 1-11 in the year before he arrived.  In 2009, his first year at the helm, the Mocs improved to 6-5.

This season Chattanooga is 2-2, after losing its first two games to Appalachian State and Jacksonville State, both currently ranked in the FCS Top 5.  The Mocs rebounded with victories over Eastern Kentucky and Western Carolina, the latter game played in Cullowhee.

Those two losses may have excited the UTC fan base more than the two wins, as both were close games against quality opponents.  Chattanooga led Appalachian State 28-7 at halftime before the Mountaineers scored 28 fourth-quarter points to take a 7-point lead.  The Mocs scored what would have been the tying touchdown with under a minute to play, but Huesman elected to go for two.  It didn’t work, and Appalachian State escaped Finley Stadium with a victory.

Chattanooga also led Jacksonville State 17-7 entering the fourth quarter, only for the Gamecocks to respond with 14 fourth-quarter points.  JSU’s game-winning TD came on a 72-yard pass play with 1:16 remaining.  That game, played in Alabama, came one week after Jacksonville State’s stunning win over Mississippi.

UTC’s 42-24 victory over EKU included 548 yards of total offense, including 375 yards passing (4 TDs) from B.J. Coleman and 122 yards rushing from Erroll Wynn.

Against Western Carolina, the Mocs turned the ball over four times, one of those being a fumble returned for a touchdown (Chattanooga lost three fumbles overall).  UTC was also burned by a wide receiver pass for a TD, but prevailed 27-21 in part because the Mocs D forced four turnovers of its own.

Speaking of Coleman (a transfer from Tennessee), you may remember him from last year’s game, in which The Citadel blew a 15-point lead.  During the UTC rally, the Mocs went to a no-huddle offense, and the Bulldogs never stopped it, despite the fact Chattanooga could not run the ball.  Coleman somehow threw 61 passes without being sacked, and was only “hurried” once.

Obviously, The Citadel has to turn that around on Saturday, but it won’t be easy.  For one thing, UTC appears to actually have a running game now, with senior Erroll Wynn averaging exactly 100 yards per game in three games (he didn’t play against App State).  That should take a lot of pressure off Coleman, who is averaging almost nine yards per pass attempt and has thrown 10 TD passes (against only 3 interceptions).

Chattanooga doesn’t seem to be missing Coleman’s main target from last season, Blue Cooper, all that much, as Joel Bradford has already caught 30 passes and is averaging over 126 yards receiving per game (nearly 17 yards per reception). Bradford is also a fine punt returner.

Other than the fourth-quarter problems against Appy and JSU, the Mocs D has played well, holding both EKU and WCU to less than 60 yards rushing and forcing eleven turnovers in its last three games, including nine interceptions.  Four of the picks were made by freshman Kadeem Wise.

Defensive end Chris Donald is another Tennessee transfer making an impact for the Mocs.  He has 4.5 sacks so far this season.  UTC is currently ninth in the country against the run.  One reason for that is linebacker Ryan Consiglio, who is averaging almost eleven tackles per game.

You may have seen Jeff Hartsell’s breakdown of The Citadel’s recent recruiting classes on “Bulldog Bites”.  Just for comparison, here is the two-deep from The Citadel’s playoff game against North Carolina A&T in 1992.  I could be wrong about a couple of these guys, but I should have most of this right.  The number by a player’s name is the year he entered The Citadel (for instance, Jack Douglas entered in the fall of 1988, hence “88”).

QB — Jack Douglas (88) and CJ Haynes (90)

FB — Everette Sands (89) and Travis Jervey (91)

LHB — Erick Little (90) and Terrance Rivers (90)

RHB — Cedric Sims (89) and Undra Mitchem (90)

TE — Marty Fagan (88) and Greg Perry (89, and originally a walk-on)

WR — Cornell Caldwell (89) and Damond Boatwright (90)

LT — David Morelli (88) and Doug Cobarras (89)

LG — Shayne Stephens (89) and Levi Davis (90)

C — Brett Copeland (88) and Bart Hearn (91 walk-on, I think)

RG — Lance Hansen (88) and Scott Reagan (89)

RT — Carey Cash (88) and Mike Wilkerson (91)

PK — Jeff Trinh (91)

DE — Garrett Sizer (89) and Ed McFarland (89, and originally a walk-on)

DE — Judson Boehmer (89) and Brad Keeney (92)

RT — LaQuincy Powell  (89, and yet another walk-on from that class), Todd Lair (91, maybe a walkon; not sure)

LT — Jake Erhard (89) and Lenny Clark (91)

LB — Micah Young (91) and Jim Wilson (88)

LB — Rob Briggs (89) and Tracey Gamble (90)

LB — Mike Wideman (89) and Kendall McKnight (90)

LCB — Torrency Forney (89) and Chauncey Chappelle (92)

RCB — Detric Cummings (90) and Corey Gay (90)

SS — Dan Johnson (89) and Ahren Self (91)

FS — Lester Smith (88) and Speizio Stowers (89)

P — Eric Willingham (88)

The return specialists were all part of the offense-defense two-deep.  Sizer was the long snapper.

46 players —

9 fifth-year seniors (including Douglas, Smith, and Cash)

17 players from the ’89 recruiting class, including three walk-ons

10 from the ’90 recruiting class

8 from the ’91 recruiting class

2 “true” freshmen

One quick note on the above:  the 1991 recruiting class was actually rather thin; only two other scholarship members of that class would contribute in future seasons. Whether that “lost class” was a key factor in the eventual decline in The Citadel’s gridiron fortunes is hard to say, although it certainly didn’t help.

I had plenty to say about the loss to Western Carolina last week, and about some things that rather obviously need to improve.  I’ll add a little to what I already mentioned, and note a couple of other things:

— I was glad to see that Kevin Higgins acknowledged the poor play of the secondary against WCU (you can read about his press conference here and here).  Watching the lack of ball awareness was excruciating.

— He also addressed game-planning for opposing defenses, explaining what he feels the issues are.  I suspect that this wouldn’t be as big a problem if the Bulldogs were in Year 3 or Year 4 of the triple option.

Teams that have run an option attack for a long time, like Navy or Air Force or Wofford, generally force the opponents to adjust to them, not the other way around.  That’s because their players have been in the system long enough to recognize different defensive looks, and understand basically (if not always specifically) what each person’s job is when facing a certain setup.

Having said that, I was a little concerned that Higgins seemed confident in what Russ Huesman’s defense will probably do on Saturday.  He’s basing that on what Huesman has done in the past against the option, but the Mocs have had a week off and presumably a lot more time to put in new things.  What if UTC comes out in a defensive formation for which the Bulldogs aren’t prepared?  Another lost half for The Citadel’s offense?

— Amidst all the talk about changing quarterbacks, his decision to change placekickers has seemingly gone under the radar.

— About those quarterbacks…

I’ll be honest.  I don’t care which quarterback starts.  If Higgins thinks Sam Martin starting might jump-start the team in the opening quarter, then by all means run him out there.  The bottom line is that both Martin and Matt Thompson are going to play, and they’re both going to play about the same number of plays — at least, that’s the plan.

Martin has looked more comfortable in the offense than Thompson, but he hasn’t been that much better.  We’re not talking about the second coming of a healthy Jamelle Holieway here.  At this point, we don’t know if we’re talking about the second coming of a healthy Brendan Potts (which would be okay by me).

Neither Martin nor Thompson has mastered the center/QB exchange (to be fair, neither have the centers).  Thompson seems to still struggle with the “mesh”, and should also heed the advice of John Wooden — be quick but don’t hurry.  However, he’s a true freshman with some obvious talent, and he deserves a chance to show what he can do (as does Martin).  This is, as I’ve said before, a transition season, although not everyone seems to understand that.

While leaving the stadium on Saturday after the WCU game, I overheard a Bulldog fan say, in a non-ironic way, that the loss to the Catamounts meant “we won’t go to the playoffs now.”  You don’t say…

One thing both quarterbacks must improve (and for that matter, their receiving corps): the Bulldogs currently have a pass completion rate of 35.4%.  While The Citadel doesn’t throw the ball a lot in this offense, it has to do better than that.  Completing less than 36% of your pass attempts is just horrendous.  If that percentage holds up, it would be the lowest completion percentage for a Bulldog squad since 1965.  Care to guess how many games that 1965 team won?

Two.

The Bulldogs will be Underdogs on Saturday, and deservedly so.  However, I’ll close this post by pointing out that there is hope for the game against UTC:

1)  Chattanooga, while improved, hasn’t really proven that it’s made a move to the next level in the Southern Conference, at least not yet.  Those two games against Appalachian State and Jacksonville State were both impressive in a lot of ways, but they were also both losses.  Last year The Citadel also lost a close game to Appalachian State at home, in overtime.  It did not lead to a winning season.

I’m not quite ready to buy stock in a team which to this point in the season has only beaten Eastern Kentucky (which has just one win on the season) and Western Carolina.

2)  The Bulldog offense may continue to struggle, but I find it hard to believe that the defense (particularly the DBs) will have two consecutive clunkers.  I think there is a lot of talent on that side of the ball, and sometime (hopefully soon) it will begin to show. Also, there is something to be said for regression to the mean.

We’ll find out Saturday.

Football, Game 10: The Citadel vs. UT-Chattanooga

Note:  it can be difficult to figure out what to call the athletic teams of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.  Recently the school began using a ‘C’ mark, for “Chattanooga”.  The university’s teams have variously been referred to over the years as “UT-Chattanooga”, “Tennessee-Chattanooga”, “UTC”, and “Chattanooga”.

The nickname/mascot history is even more tangled.  A “moccasin” used to be a snake, then a shoe, then a cartoon Cherokee Indian called ‘Chief Moccanooga’, and now a mockingbird train conductor (and “moccasin” has morphed into “moc”, for mockingbird).

There is an explanatory page on the school’s website.  The page includes a quotation from Jimmy Fallon.  As you may have guessed, the quote is not very funny.

In the post that follows, I will call the school either “UT-Chattanooga”, or “UTC”, because that’s what I’ve always called it, and I see no particular reason to change.

Around this time last year The Citadel played UT-Chattanooga in Charleston.  It was Homecoming for the Bulldogs, and everyone expected a big win, since the Mocs were 1-9 (and would eventually finish 1-11).  At that time I wrote about how UTC had collapsed as a program after consistently challenging for league honors in its first 10-15 years in the Southern Conference.

Well, The Citadel did win that day, but barely, letting a team playing out the string with a lame-duck coach hang around and nearly steal the victory.  The Bulldogs survived thanks to Andre Roberts’ last-minute punt return TD, but despite winning the game, it was almost as poor a showing as The Citadel had for this year’s Homecoming.

UT-Chattanooga replaced Rodney Allison with Russ Huesman, who basically has the ideal background for a UTC head coach.  Huesman played high school football at famed Moeller High School in Cincinnati for Gerry Faust, who was destined to become a much-maligned coach for Notre Dame (albeit one who never lost to Navy).  Huesman then played college football for the Mocs, with his first two years under Joe Morrison and his last two under Bill “Brother” Oliver.

Huesman was a longtime assistant at William & Mary, where he coached the secondary (Huesman was a DB himself at UTC) and was later the defensive coordinator.  Players he coached while with the Tribe include longtime NFL interception magnet Darren Sharper, Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, and Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator Sean McDermott.  That’s not a bad list of guys to have as references.

He then moved to Memphis for several seasons, including a stretch as recruiting coordinator for the Tigers, before spending five seasons as the defensive coordinator for Richmond, the defending FCS champions.

That’s a nice resume for any prospective head coach at the FCS level; being an alum is an even bigger bonus.  Huesman seems to have given the program some much-needed enthusiasm.  Home attendance has increased significantly, with three of the ten biggest crowds in Finley Stadium history so far this season.  There was even a bonfire on Wednesday night.

Another thing Huesman did was bring in a transfer from Tennessee to play quarterback.  B.J. Coleman has had a solid season for the Mocs, nothing flashy stats-wise but generally getting the job done.

Coleman has thrown fourteen touchdowns against six interceptions, although he did throw three picks last week against Appalachian State.  Five of his six interceptions for the season, in fact, have come in the last three games.  Coleman is a sophomore who will have two more years of eligibility after this season.

The Vols transfer has spread the ball around, although his favorite target is definitely Blue Cooper, who has 68 receptions and could conceivably make the All-SoCon squad ahead of Andre Roberts (Elon’s Terrell Hudgins is a lock for the other first-team spot at wide receiver).

UTC suffered a blow when running back Bryan Fitzgerald was injured and lost for the season.  Freshman Chris Awuah is the leading rusher for the Mocs, but he is averaging just 3.2 yards per carry.  UTC is last in the league in rushing offense.

UTC has respectable, if not eye-popping, defensive statistics across the board, generally ranking in the upper half of the SoCon in most categories for conference-only games.  The Mocs have struggled, however, in defending 3rd-down conversions; the Mocs D is 7th in the league (The Citadel is 8th in the league, ahead of only Furman).  Another sore spot for the defense is red zone conversion rate; UTC is last in the SoCon, and has allowed 17 touchdowns in 25 opponents’ possessions inside the 20.

The Mocs are tied for the lead in interceptions in conference play with eight; free safety Jordan Tippet has five of his own.

One defensive stat that is very impressive for UTC:  sacks.  The Mocs have 24 sacks on the season; their 16 sacks in league play in second-best in the conference.  The primary sack-master is right defensive end Josh Beard, who has 10.5 of them so far this year.  His partner in crime on the other side of the line, freshman DE Joshua Williams, has 6.

Despite the mediocre 3rd-down defense numbers and lack of a rushing game, UTC leads the league in time of possession.  The Mocs don’t hurt themselves with penalties (second in the SoCon).  UTC is next-to-last in net punting, but features an outstanding placekicker in Craig Camay, who is 13-16 converting field goals this year, with a long of 52.  Camay is also a weapon for onside kicks; the Mocs have recovered four of five onside kick attempts in league action.

A few other odds and ends:

— I was surprised to find out that The Citadel is UT-Chattanooga’s most common opponent.  Saturday’s game will be the 43rd meeting between the two schools.  The school in second place on the Mocs most-played list?  Tennessee, which has faced UTC on 41 occasions.  The Vols are 37-2-2 in those games.

— UTC is 5-4, but if it has dreams of a winning season, it probably needs to beat The Citadel.  Next week, the Mocs play Alabama.  Yikes.

Tangent:  what is with the SEC and these late-season matchups against FCS schools?  Last week, there were four such games:  Tennessee Tech-Georgia, Furman-Auburn, Northern Arizona-Mississippi, and Eastern Kentucky-Kentucky.

Last year, of course, The Citadel closed out its season by playing Florida.  Why aren’t these games being played in the first couple of weeks of the season? I hope all of them were Homecoming games.

— UTC’s game notes reference The Citadel’s football stadium (on the same page) as “Haggod Stadium” , “Johnson Hagood Stadium”, and “Sansom Field”.

— The Citadel has never won four straight games against UT-Chattanooga.  The Bulldogs currently enjoy a three-game winning streak versus the Mocs.

It’s hard to say what The Citadel’s chances on Saturday are, since it’s hard to determine which Bulldog team will show up — the one that played Appalachian State and Furman, or the one that played Elon, Western Carolina, and Wofford?

It will be interesting to see who starts at quarterback.  If I had to guess (and it’s only a guess), I would say that Miguel Starks, even if just “85%”, will get the nod.  Just the thought of a gimpy Bart Blanchard sitting in the pocket as the two sack-happy UTC defensive ends converge on him is cringe-inducing…

I certainly hope that the Bulldogs are more competitive than they were last week.  This is a big game for UTC, which has a chance for a winning season.  Given that the Mocs won a total of six games in the previous three years, that would be a major accomplishment.  UT-Chattanooga will be ready to play on Saturday.  The Bulldogs better be ready as well.