2012 Football, Week 10: The Citadel vs. VMI

The Citadel at VMI, to be played at Foster Stadium in Lexington, Virginia, with kickoff at 1:30 pm ET on Saturday, November 10.  The game can be heard on radio via the twelve affiliates of The Citadel Sports Network. Danny Reed (the “Voice of the Bulldogs”) will call the action alongside analyst Josh Baker, with Lee Glaze roaming the sidelines and Walt Nadzak providing pre-game, halftime, and post-game commentary. Live video of the game will be available for a fee from the Big South Network.

Links of interest:

The Citadel game notes

VMI game notes

SoCon weekly release

FCS Coaches Poll

The Kevin Higgins Show (following the game against Elon), Part 1 and Part 2

Kevin Higgins’ 11/5 press conference quotes

Catching up with…Sadath Jean-Pierre

Sparky Woods at VMI’s Quarterback Club luncheon (with a guest appearance by VMI hoops coach Duggar Baucom)

Map of VMI campus

Saturday is going to be a busy day when it comes to athletic contests between The Citadel and VMI. Most of this post will focus on the football game, of course, but around the time the fourth quarter begins in Virginia, the Bulldog hoopsters will take on the Keydet cagers in McAlister Field House as part of the All-Military Classic.

That’s not all, though. Actually, most of the Dog vs. Roo action will occur on VMI’s campus, much of it prior to the football game.

At 10 am, there will be simultaneous competitions, both at the recently renamed Saunders Fields, a/k/a the North Post complex. On one field, there will be a women’s rugby game. On another, a men’s lacrosse match. Later in the day, following the football game, there will be a men’s rugby game at the North Post.

Admission to those matches is free, with donations going to the Special Operations Warrior Foundation. Anyone who is heading to VMI for the football game ought to check out these contests as well, particularly the lacrosse match, which should be a spirited affair. An additional way to support the teams and the SOWF: buying t-shirts and hats.

Another benefit to watching the Bulldogs’ lacrosse team is getting to see their snazzy uniforms in person, as they know how to wear camo. This includes the helmets.

I wrote extensively about VMI’s gridiron struggles last year. This season for the Keydets has been more of the same, and I’m not inclined to repeat what I wrote before. Some quick observations:

– VMI is 2-7, 1-4 in the Big South. The two victories have come against Chowan and Presbyterian. Both of those wins came at Foster Stadium; on the road, the Keydets are 0-5. Average score of those five losses: 35-8. VMI will be more than happy to host The Citadel this Saturday.

– Through nine games this season, VMI has only had 20 offensive plays that resulted in a gain of 20+ yards. By way of comparison, The Citadel has had 38 such plays. The Keydets have only had one rushing play of more than 20 yards all year.

Of those 20 “big plays” for VMI, only six have gone for 30 or more yards, the same number of 30-yard+ plays The Citadel had in its victory over Appalachian State.

– VMI is 0-7 when trailing at halftime, despite the fact that the Keydets have only suffered two early blowouts (against Coastal Carolina and Stony Brook). VMI has hung around in most of its losses, generally trailing by about ten points at the break.

The reason the Keydets haven’t been able to mount a few successful comebacks is simple: VMI can’t score (10.6 ppg).

– Sparky Woods spoke at VMI’s Quarterback Club luncheon about the Keydets’ most recent game, the 45-7 loss at Stony Brook (you can see that at one of the above links). He also discussed the matchup during the Big South teleconference, but Woods was speaking to a different audience in Lexington and his comments reflected that.

He seemed to emphasize the transient nature of Stony Brook’s roster when talking to the QC, saying something to the effect that VMI did not face many players actually recruited out of high school by the Seawolves, but rather a squad made up largely of transfers, including a former Iowa running back and refugees from Hofstra’s now-disbanded program.

I don’t think Woods was being defensive; rather, he appeared to be matter-of-factly explaining the way of the world to his audience. Stony Brook’s football program is leaving the Big South after this season, and because of that it may have been easier for Woods to outline the differences between the two squads.

– Since Stony Brook is leaving the Big South, I have a suggestion for the VMI administration: go ahead and take advantage of the extra non-conference game created by the Seawolves’ departure by scheduling an easy win.

VMI desperately needs to get that “no winning seasons since 1981” monkey off its back. The simplest way to do that is to schedule as many sure-thing victories as possible.

If the Big South is going to be a six-member league in football for a while, that means the Keydets will play five conference games each season. I’m assuming VMI needs to schedule a “guarantee” game each year. The remaining five contests, though, ought to include The Citadel and four teams the Keydets should expect to beat.

I realize VMI has long-cherished rivalries with Richmond and William & Mary (although the Tribe is not on the schedule this season), but I think it is more important long-term for Keydet football to develop some momentum, and to do that VMI needs to win some games. Right now, VMI is not going to pick up victories against those two schools (the Spiders won this year’s meeting in Lexington 47-6, the tenth straight win for UR in the series since VMI joined the Big South).

I think VMI should try to get four out-of-conference “gimmes” on the slate. Win those, pick off a couple of Big South opponents (more than manageable), and suddenly the Keydets wind up with a winning season.

– VMI has a new defensive coordinator this year, Jeff Farrington. He is a 1982 graduate of The Citadel, and is thus part of a semi-tradition of sort: grads from one of the military colleges coaching at the other (like Bobby Ross and Cal McCombs).

– This will be the second time VMI has faced a triple option team this season. The Keydets played Navy earlier in the year, losing 41-3. VMI trailed by just ten points (13-3) at halftime of that game, partly because Navy shot itself in the foot on multiple occasions, but also because the Keydet D played fairly well in the first half.

Considering that fifteen of the twenty-two players on VMI’s defensive two-deep are freshmen, sophomores, or redshirt sophomores, that wasn’t a bad effort. Nosetackle Charlie Jones and left end Shawn Chapman are the only seniors on VMI’s depth chart for defense.

VMI lined up against Navy in a five-man front, just as it did against The Citadel last season. For an extensive and excellent explanation of how the Keydets defended the triple option, and what Navy did to combat what they were doing, I highly recommend The Birddog’s post about the game, complete with video analysis:

VMI spent the game in a 5-man front, which meant that we saw a lot of zone dives and zone options. The coaches like to run the zone dive against odd fronts– or any front where the defense has someone lined up directly across from the center– because it’s an easy read for the fullback. The fullback reads the DT and runs to the opposite side of the center that the DT plays.

Navy actually didn’t run a lot of “true” triple option plays in that game, because of how VMI was playing defense.

– VMI has had the same starting eleven on defense in all but one game this season. One of those starters, free safety Adam Morgan, saw action against The Citadel last season as a quarterback, backing up Eric Kordenbrock.

Morgan was the Big South defensive player of the week on October 8 after intercepting two passes against Presbyterian. He is the only Keydet to receive league player of the week honors this season.

– At Kevin Higgins’ weekly press conference, the two Bulldog football players who spoke to the media were defensive lineman Bay Amrhein and offensive guard Jim Knowles. I was reminded again that there is a significant element of educational/life experience in intercollegiate athletics when Knowles (a native of Florida) said the trip to VMI would be the first time he had ever been that far north.

– Higgins noted that the Keydets lead the Big South in pass attempts. What he was polite enough not to say was that while VMI does lead that league in pass attempts, it is only fourth in the Big South in completed passes.

VMI is last in the Big South in scoring offense, total offense, rushing offense, and red zone offense. It is next-to-last in offensive pass efficiency, first downs made, turnover margin, and penalties committed.

Kevin Higgins singled out Keydet wide receiver James Rogers as someone to watch. Rogers is actually listed as a backup on the two-deep, but leads the team with 32 receptions, including an 80-yard TD grab against Gardner-Webb.

– The Keydets are not strong in special teams play. VMI is last in the Big South in kickoff return average and net punting, and next-to-last in kickoff coverage. The Keydets have only converted four of nine field goal attempts. What VMI is fairly good at is returning punts.

Fans who attended last year’s game at Johnson Hagood Stadium between these two teams will remember that VMI’s punt unit was — well, it was terrible, to be honest. The Citadel blocked three punts in that game.

This year VMI has tightened things up, only allowing one blocked punt all season.

– Conference opponents have committed more penalties against VMI than any other Big South team, which suggests that sloppy play can be viral. The Bulldogs have to be careful on that front after committing a higher-than-normal number of penalties against Elon.

Should The Citadel win this game on Saturday? Yes. Is it a lock? Absolutely not.

I can recall a few VMI teams a lot worse than this year’s edition giving The Citadel a hard time. I remember 1986 and 1989 all too well (especially 1986, the game that sealed Tom Moore’s fate as head coach of the Bulldogs).

That’s the nature of a true rivalry. People remember plays that happened decades ago, like Brian Ruff’s stop to clinch the 1975 game, or the back-to-back TD runs by Gene Brown in 1988.

I won’t be surprised at all if Triple O’Higgins struggles in the first half against VMI’s defense, which is probably better than its statistics suggest. The Bulldogs need to remain patient on both sides of the ball. The Citadel also must take advantage of its solid edge in the kicking game.

This is a big game, not just because the coveted Silver Shako is on the line, but because a victory would clinch a winning season for The Citadel. If the Bulldogs finish with at least six wins, they will have accomplished their primary goal.

I think it’s going to be tougher than expected on Saturday for the Bulldogs. VMI will be ready to play. A win over The Citadel will make the Keydets’ season.

It will be a challenge. The Citadel must meet that challenge.

Hoops update: Wofford and Furman travel to McAlister

Just some quick thoughts on the upcoming games at McAlister Field House…

The Citadel’s last three losses have been a) by one point at home to UNC-Greensboro, in as brutal a fashion as I’ve seen the Dogs lose in a while; b) a 29-point thrashing at Davidson that featured one of the worst first-half performances in the program’s recent history, which is saying something; and c) a double-OT setback at Georgia Southern in which The Citadel did a lot of things right but lost thanks to a series of first-half turnovers and a lopsided free throw disparity (the latter noted by Chuck Driesell, deservedly so).

The Bulldogs need to catch a break. First, they need to be in a position to take advantage of a break, which they were in Statesboro — it just didn’t work out. Will they be in position to pick up a win against either Wofford or Furman?

Let’s take a look at those always-critical “Four Factors” stats for The Citadel, courtesy of kenpom.com:

Four Factors                    Off  Rank        Def  Rank         D-1 avg.
Effective FG%: 48.0 199 56.7 341 49.0
Turnover %: 21.5 224 17.9 302 20.8
Off. Reb. %: 28.3 285 31.6 126 32.5
FTA/FGA: 30.1 306 30.7 57 36.5

The Bulldogs continue to struggle defensively, with the horrific eFG% more obvious than a $50 hooker outside Mark Clark Hall. Only four teams are worse than The Citadel in that category (for the record, they are Kennesaw State, Longwood, Monmouth, and Northern Arizona; those four teams plus The Citadel have a combined record of 23-79).

The Citadel also does not force enough turnovers on defense. The Bulldogs do a decent job limiting offensive rebounds, and generally don’t give opponents a lot of free throw opportunities (Georgia Southern excepted, I suppose). Conversely, those are two areas in which The Citadel’s offense has not fared as well.

Mike Groselle has been a force on the offensive glass, as his offensive rebounding rate of 13.9% is 64th-best nationally, but the problem is that he has accounted for 40% of The Citadel’s total offensive boards. He needs more help grabbing misses.

The team as a whole needs to get to the line more. The Dogs are not a terrible shooting team, but aren’t nearly good enough to get by without free points from the charity stripe. Of course, that brings up a bigger problem, which is that The Citadel isn’t converting enough of those freebies as it is. The Bulldogs must shoot much, much better than 63% from the foul line if they hope to win a few more games down the stretch.

Wofford is 12-8 overall, and has won three straight SoCon games to move to 5-3 in the league. The Terriers are aiming for a first-round SoCon tourney bye. There are still ten league games to go, but Wofford has a one-game lead over the College of Charleston for second place in the South division, behind runaway league leader Davidson. Second place in the division will be good enough for that much-wanted bye.

The Terriers have already beaten the CofC at home, and also can claim a victory over Wake Forest in Winston-Salem. Other than Davidson, Wofford has probably been the league’s most consistent team.

On December 3, Wofford beat The Citadel 82-63 in Spartanburg. The Terriers shot 55% from the field in that game, with Keith Giltner scoring 27 points and pulling down 10 rebounds. The most glaring offensive statistic for the Bulldogs had to be the lack of assists — only four (on 22 made baskets).

Furman is 9-10, 3-5 in SoCon play. The Paladins have hovered around .500 all season, never more than two games over or under the break-even mark.

The Bulldogs’ loss at Furman on January 5 featured a mind-numbing 42-16 run by the Paladins in the second half to end the game, which turned a 35-29 Furman lead into a 77-45 loss for the Bulldogs. Furman took a lot of threes (29) and made more than its fair share of them (13). Bobby Austin came off the bench for the Paladins and made five of his six attempts from beyond the arc. Like the Wofford game, The Citadel was outrebounded by a significant margin.

At halftime of Saturday’s game against the Paladins, Colonel Jake Burrows will have his jersey number (No. 3) recognized with a banner to be hung in the rafters at McAlister Field House. Burrows, now 93 years old, is a 1940 graduate of The Citadel. He had, it is fair so say, quite a career as a cadet. From the Wofford preview at citadelsports.com:

Burrows…is the lone member of the college’s [athletic] Hall of Fame who was both Regimental Commander and First Honor Graduate of his class.  As an athlete in which he competed for three years (freshmen were ineligible), Burrows earned eight total letters as he lettered in football three times, basketball three times and twice in track. He was an all-state pick in basketball three times and twice was named All-Southern Conference and during his three years of basketball, Burrows averaged 11.5 points per game which equated to 31 percent of the team’s total points.  In his three years on the hardwood, The Citadel defeated South Carolina and Furman six straight games each.

After graduating, Burrows began a career in the U.S. Army that included serving on Gen. Dwight Eisenhower’s staff during the latter part of World War II. More importantly, Burrows (in his role as Director of Cadet Activities) was the driving force behind the creation of the coveted Silver Shako, for which he probably merits an additional banner in the rafters.

Here is a recap of the Bulldogs’ season-opening 1938 victory over Furman, in which The Citadel defeated the Hurricane (!) 38-17. Burrows, a sophomore that season, led the team with eight points: Link

(Curiously, the basketball media guide records that game as a 37-17 Bulldogs victory, rather than 38-17.)

Burrows was also the leading scorer for The Citadel in its next game, a win over South Carolina. This was not an unusual occurrence. In his junior campaign, 1939, Burrows led The Citadel in scoring in all but one game all season. The Citadel won 65% of its games during Burrows’ career as a hoopster, including the “state championship” in 1939.

I am hoping that Burrows’ success on the hardwood will serve to inspire the current Bulldogs, at least for one night…

Game Review, 2011: VMI

The Citadel 41, VMI 14. The coveted Silver Shako remains in Charleston.

Links of interest:

Game story from The Post and Courier

Jeff Hartsell’s postgame notes column

Photo gallery of VMI-The Citadel from The Post and Courier

Game writeup from VMI’s sports website

Game writeup from The Citadel’s sports website

I got to the stadium early on Saturday, and decided to walk around campus. That gave me the opportunity to see the new Ring Statue (I guess that’s what it is going to be called). The statue is a great addition to the parade ground, and I like where it is stationed. It is also a magnet for photographers of all types (including me).

The campus as a whole looked good, even on a gloomy, overcast morning. Conditions improved considerably as gametime approached, and by kickoff it was nice and sunny, classic fall “jacket weather”. The only negative was a rather insistent breeze, but it wasn’t too bad.

The Hall of Fame inductions resulted in some familiar faces showing up for the game, including former hoopsters like Gus Olalere and James Stevens, just to name two. Nate Ross, Renaissance Man, was also on hand. It wasn’t surprising to see a strong basketball contingent, what with Randy Nesbit being one of the HoF inductees.

Dallas McPherson and Tony Skole were also honored, so more than a few ex-baseball players (like Anthony Jenkins and Mike Montei) were at Johnson Hagood Stadium. Phil Florence was enshrined as well. I had forgotten just how good a career he had in track, to say nothing of his abilities as a wide receiver; I was reminded of that fact during his introduction to the crowd at the half.

Charlie Taaffe wasn’t there, as Central Florida had a game on Saturday. I’m not sure the Knights really needed their offensive coordinator, as UCF shut out hapless Memphis 41-0, but Taaffe was represented at halftime by his son Brian. Tom McQueeney, one of about 300 McQueeneys to attend The Citadel, was also inducted into the Hall.

Just before I entered the stadium, I saw an older gentleman come out of the front of JHS, slip past the turnstiles, and walk over to a small group of people. They appeared to be family members. He pointed them in the direction where they were apparently supposed to go, and off they went.

After a moment, he strolled through the side gate (mysteriously open) next to the Altman Center. He then stopped briefly to take out a visitors’ pass and put it around his neck, a needless gesture if there ever was one.

If I had been a little closer when I first saw him, I probably would have greeted him. After all, Bobby Ross was the head coach for the first football game I ever attended. It was a win, too. I watched him amiably talking to one of the security workers for a minute or so, on the edge of the field. Then memories came flooding into my brain, and I turned away.

I was disappointed in the attendance. It was a good day for football (eventually), Clemson and South Carolina were both playing road night games, and there weren’t any truly interesting football games on TV in the afternoon. Just 11,184 people decided to go to the game, though.

Bobby Ross, who had the honors at the coin toss, might have been able to relate to the attendance woes. In his first two years as head coach at The Citadel the average attendance for a game at Johnson Hagood Stadium was just 11,692, not much more than the crowd on Saturday. However, in his last three seasons with the Bulldogs, the average attendance jumped to 16,718.

As for the game itself, some random thoughts:

— At halftime, The Citadel led 21-7. That was the good news, and the best kind of good news, since it was the bottom line. However, I found it worrisome that the difference in the half boiled down to two blocked punts.

After the first couple of drives the Bulldogs did not accomplish much on offense, and the defense allowed a touchdown drive by VMI that consisted of two penalties and six consecutive runs by Keydet running back Chaz Jones, most of them right up the middle. Jones finished the day with 112 yards rushing on 16 carries.

— Sparky Woods is a good coach, but if he had to do it over again, I suspect he might have done a couple of things differently on Saturday. I think Woods tried too hard to keep his offense “balanced”, as VMI finished the day with 33 rush attempts and 26 pass plays. Those numbers don’t account for sacks, so it was really more like 30 designed rushing plays and 29 throws or would-be throws.

The problem was that VMI was reasonably effective on the ground but putrid in the air. Only 9 of those 26 pass attempts were completed, for a total of just 68 yards. From my vantage point, it seemed the primary problem with VMI’s passing game was that its receivers could not get open. Meanwhile, the Keydets were averaging a respectable 4.7 yards per rush, led by Jones, who I thought probably should have received more opportunities to carry the ball.

— The decision by Woods that I found most perplexing, though, came in the third quarter. With The Citadel leading 24-7, VMI faced a fourth-and-seven on its own 29. The Keydets prepared to punt, which for their fans was a cover-your-eyes situation, as two VMI punts had already been blocked in the game, and another possible block just missed.

VMI survived yet another close call on this particular punt. The net was only 23 yards, but considering the troubles with the VMI punting game, and the fact the Keydets were going against the wind, it wasn’t the most terrible of outcomes. However, there was a penalty on the play.

It wasn’t roughing the kicker, but running into the kicker. If the penalty were accepted, it would be fourth and two on the VMI 34. VMI could go for it (after all, the Keydets had nothing to lose, down 17, and Jones was picking up good yardage on running plays). The Keydets could also decline the penalty, with The Citadel taking over at its own 48.

Woods elected to take the penalty, and punt again. I have no idea why. The result was rather predictable, as John Synovec came through the line untouched and blocked the punt.

Tangent: after Synovec blocked the punt, I noticed a Bulldog player (probably Chris Billingslea, always in the middle of The Citadel’s punt-blocking exploits) grab a Keydet in an effort to prevent the VMI player from covering the football. It didn’t matter in the end, as the ball was not advanced, but I think The Citadel could have been called for a post-possession holding penalty in that situation. Then again, I might be wrong about that.

— VMI did a good job adjusting on defense after The Citadel’s first two offensive drives. To this non-expert, it seemed the Keydets D was doing a fair bit of stunting and blitzing, blowing up plays before The Citadel could get to the perimeter.

The Bulldogs finally started to get back on track midway through the third quarter, with the offensive adjustments including the toss sweep (a play Georgia Tech would run repeatedly later that night against Clemson) and some misdirection plays. The Citadel’s wide receivers also did a better job of blocking in the second half.

— It’s not every game in which a team has eleven different players with a rushing attempt, but that was the number of Bulldogs who carried the ball on Saturday. One of those eleven was punter Cass Couey, who picked up twelve yards and a first down on a fake punt, the second time in his career he has made such a play.

I’m honestly not sure whether or not that was planned, or if he felt the pressure on his right and decided to take off on his own. It was a heady play either way by Couey, who is making a strong case to be the all-SoCon punter.

— The Citadel wore what is arguably the most aesthetically displeasing of all its uniform sets, the light blue jersey/navy pants combo. The Bulldogs had lost six consecutive games in which they wore navy pants prior to the victory over VMI.

I’ll close out this post with some photos I took on Saturday. They include several shots of the new Ring Statue, some pictures of the Bulldogs warming up pregame (I saw no Schembechler-inspired activity on that front), static game shots, an actually semi-decent “action” photo of the first blocked punt, a few other “at the game” pictures, plus a photo of that which is most coveted. As always, please understand that the photographer isn’t very good and his camera isn’t much better.

On to Statesboro..

2011 Football Game 8: The Citadel vs. VMI

The Citadel vs. VMI, also known as “The Military Classic of the South”, to be played at historic Johnson Hagood Stadium, with kickoff at 1:00 pm ET on Saturday, October 29.  The game will not be televised. There will be a webcast on Bulldog Insider (subscription service), and the game can be heard on radio via The Citadel Sports Network, with “Voice of the Bulldogs” Danny Reed calling the action alongside analyst Walt Nadzak.  The two teams will battle for the coveted Silver Shako, universally regarded as the greatest trophy in all of sports.

I’ve actually written multiple posts on The Citadel’s football team this week. It’s the first time in a while I’ve done that. I reviewed the Western Carolina game, and also threw in my two cents on where the corps of cadets should be placed at Johnson Hagood Stadium.

Now it’s time for the long-awaited resumption of the Cadets vs. Keydets clash. I’m looking forward to this matchup, in part because the Bulldogs have a good chance of winning, but perhaps more so because I think it’s a shame the rivalry had to take a break in the first place. Be forewarned; I’m going to spend most of this post writing about VMI.

The fact the matchup has not taken place since 2007 is a direct result of VMI leaving the Southern Conference following the 2002 football season, which affected the ability of both schools to schedule the game. VMI had been a member of the league since 1924, so we’re not talking about a TCU situation here. Why did the school move to the Big South?

From a Jeff Hartsell article in The Post and Courier:

When VMI left the SoCon after the 2002 season, school officials claimed scheduling flexibility as one reason for the move. The Keydets were locked into eight league games in the SoCon; at the time, the Big South played only four conference games (it’s up to six games and seven teams now, including Stony Brook, which is in New York).

But there’s no doubt football futility played a role in the decision. In the six seasons before their departure, the Keydets were 4-43 in the SoCon, including three 0-8 records and two 1-7 marks, for a winning percentage of .085.

Let’s dig into this a little deeper. First, an aside: you know VMI fans (not to mention the school administration) wince when they see a headline like that one (“Nine years after VMI retreated from SoCon, Bulldogs hold fast”). Ouch.

The Keydets had occasionally slogged through tough stretches in their history on the gridiron prior to their modern-day struggles. For example, from 1968-1971 VMI compiled a cumulative record of 3-39 (in the 1969 season, the average score of a VMI game was Opposition 41, Keydets 8). The first three of those seasons came under the tutelage of Vito Ragazzo. He was replaced in 1971 by Bob Thalman, who gradually rebuilt the program after first enduring a 1-10 campaign in 1971.

Thalman was still the coach in 1981, when the Keydets went 6-3-1. For those of you reading this who don’t know, that is the last time VMI had a winning season in football. That’s right. This year the Keydets (currently 1-6) will suffer their 30th consecutive non-winning campaign. VMI has had two .500 seasons in that span, going 6-6 in 2002 and 2003 under Cal McCombs, a graduate of The Citadel.

McCombs followed up those two years (the last season in the SoCon and the first in the Big South, respectively) by going 0-11 in 2004. After a 3-8 season in 2005, he was done as the VMI coach.

That 0-11 season in 2004 is one of two winless campaigns at the Institute since 1981. Ted Cain’s 1997 squad also went 0-11. Cain was the coach at VMI for two seasons, winning one solitary game (against Lenoir-Rhyne).

With the exception of current coach Sparky Woods, every coach at VMI since 1981 has suffered through at least one winless or one-win season. Thalman was 1-9 in his final season in charge (1984). Eddie Williamson had a 1-10 ledger in 1987. Jim Schuck (a former Army assistant who was hoped to be VMI’s version of his contemporary Charlie Taaffe) went 1-10 in his final season, 1993. His replacement, Bill Stewart (later to win a BCS bowl game at West Virginia) would field a 1-10 squad the following year.

After Cain’s two seasons (the final game of the 1998 campaign was coached by AD Donny White), McCombs would coach VMI for six years, with two 1-10 seasons to go along with that 0-11 finish in 2004. Jim Reid, who had previously been the head coach at Massachusetts and Richmond,  followed McCombs, posting records of 1-10 and 2-9 before leaving to go to the Miami Dolphins (shades of John Zernhelt). He is now the defensive coordinator at Virginia.

Speaking of Donny White, who coached that one game in 1998, he is still the director of athletics at VMI. In the Hartsell article, he had this to say about scheduling:

Fewer league games have helped VMI rekindle rivalries with teams in Virginia like Richmond and William & Mary, but it hasn’t done much for the bottom line. Overall, VMI has a 21-69 record since leaving the SoCon, the highwater mark a 6-6 record in 2003.

“To be fair, I haven’t done a good job of taking advantage of that flexibility,” White said. “With more flexibility, you try to schedule more appropriately for your team, so our non-conference record should have improved. But I haven’t done a good job with that.”

Well, he probably hasn’t. On the other hand, there is a reason he is still the AD at VMI despite the football team’s struggles. It seems clear that White, despite his comments, has been hamstrung a bit in his efforts to make the schedule easier.

The Big South, as mentioned in the article, now has seven teams, so that is six league games for VMI per season. In non-league play, VMI has played William & Mary every season since World War II save one (2009). The Keydets have not beaten the Tribe since 1985, and few of the contests in recent years have been close. Richmond has been an almost yearly opponent as well, but since joining the Big South VMI is 0-9 against the Spiders, allowing on average almost 40 points per contest.

Richmond and William & Mary are traditional rivals for the Keydets (they in fact are the two schools VMI has played most often in its history), but the fact is that right now both of them are on a tier well above VMI in terms of on-field competitiveness. Between playing both of them almost every year, along with a “money” game or two (VMI played both Virginia and Army last season), it makes it hard to schedule “gimme” victories for the squad.

This year VMI’s only game against an FBS team is Akron. I can’t imagine the Keydets got a large check for that one (though I have read that check may have been at least as big, if not bigger, than one for playing Army would have been).

In a way, it is easy to see what VMI’s administration was thinking when it elected to leave the SoCon. Richmond and William & Mary had already left the league. There were some schools still in the conference with which VMI could identify (like The Citadel and Furman), but there were other institutions with which VMI had no shared history, larger state schools that the Keydets seemingly were never going to be able to successfully compete against on the field. Georgia Southern entered the SoCon in 1993. The Eagles and Keydets met ten times. GSU won all ten games by an average score of 47-6.

By the late 1990s it seemed to be getting worse for VMI, which was losing badly every year to the likes of GSU, Appalachian State, and Chattanooga. I wouldn’t be surprised if a particular stretch in 1999 may have cast the die when it came to leaving the league. VMI was 1-10 that season, winless in the league. Starting in late September, this is how things went for the Institute: Furman leveled the Keydets 58-0. The following week, Georgia Southern traveled to Lexington and blasted VMI 62-0. The week after that, Wofford crushed the Keydets 55-10. Then Chattanooga shut out VMI 27-0.

After a non-league game against William & Mary, VMI would lose 40-2 to Western Carolina and 34-7 to App State. Even the near-miss that was the season finale (a 7-6 loss to The Citadel) wouldn’t have come close to easing the pain of that season, or perhaps the sense that VMI could no longer compete in the Southern Conference.

The problem, of course, is that recruiting to play in the Big South is not the same as recruiting for the SoCon, something the administration at VMI may not have fully realized. It may be that the VMI brass thought the school would continue recruiting the same type of athlete regardless of what league VMI called home, but that’s not the way it works.

In addition, several teams in the Big South have started to show major aspirations when it comes to football, and VMI is again faced with the problem of competing against schools with different standards (because they have different missions) and more resources. VMI is 2-7 against Coastal Carolina since joining the Big South, and 1-8 versus Liberty since joining the conference. It’s likely that competing against those schools will continue to be an uphill climb for the Keydets.

VMI is also winless against Stony Brook since the Seawolves joined the league for football. I’m guessing that most VMI alums don’t know anything about Stony Brook except that it beat their alma mater 42-14 last week.

I think the long losing streak has surely cost VMI victories in individual seasons, as there is no reservoir of winning built up in the program. What the folks in Lexington need to do, more than anything, is come up with a winning season to get the proverbial monkey off their back. As such, VMI should schedule accordingly. At least three “gimme” or “near gimme” games should be scheduled, preferably early in the season in order to build confidence.

Then, with hard work and a little luck, three victories in league play would give VMI that 6-5 record and end the skid. In other words, play Lock Haven and Chowan and schools like that on a regular basis in non-conference games.

The Citadel has suffered because of a long losing run of its own, only broken by the 7-4 season in 2007. When it comes to breaking a run of losing that has lasted for a generation and a half, VMI’s difficulties are exponentially greater.

I was at the 2002 contest referenced in Jeff Hartsell’s story. It was easily the most miserable I have been at a football game, and that had nothing to do with the outcome. That game was the first of two matchups between VMI and The Citadel played in Charlotte at ancient Memorial Stadium, an interesting idea for promoting the series that definitely did not work out.

The problem was that the weather was beyond awful that day, and the field at the stadium was simply not up to par, to put it mildly. The end result was that the two teams played in a sea of mud while the supporters who actually made it to the stadium were being absolutely pelted by near-freezing rain. It was just a mess.

I’ve still got my program from that game. It is, shall we say, weatherbeaten. For the record, the 2002 game was technically a VMI home game, so the program is actually “Keydet Gameday” with VMI defensive back DeAngello Plather on the cover. It’s probably not a collector’s item.

The weather was much better for the 1980 contest at Johnson Hagood Stadium, a tour de force by Stump Mitchell. I still remember a long touchdown run in which several different VMI players were left with pieces of his jersey (they wore tearaways back then) while Mitchell galloped down the sideline, shoulder pads rhythmically bouncing as he ran.

VMI and The Citadel will be meeting later in the season over the next few years. Next year’s game in Lexington is tentatively scheduled for November 10. The game in 2013 is slated to be played November 16.

VMI will also play Navy in 2012.

Sparky Woods is the coach at VMI. It’s his fourth season in Lexington. When he was hired I thought it was a quality move for VMI, and I still do. He’s a good coach. People sometimes forget that he did a nice job at Appalachian State, which is what led to him getting the South Carolina job.

He got the gig with the Gamecocks after Joe Morrison died. I remember when Woods was first formally introduced to a South Carolina crowd; it was at the 1989 basketball game between The Citadel and South Carolina, at Frank McGuire Arena. Gamecock officials literally rolled a red carpet (it may have been garnet) to center court and led him out for a quick wave-and-leave moment. The crowd stood and gave him a standing ovation.

Of course, that night the Bulldogs beat the Gamecocks on the hardwood for the first time since 1943. Perhaps it was an omen for his worst moment as the football coach at South Carolina, the 38-35 loss to The Citadel in 1990…

This is going to be yet another game in which neither The Citadel nor its opponent is known for committing penalties. The Bulldogs have the fewest penalties (and penalty yardage) in FCS football. VMI is tied for seventh in fewest penalty yards. Amazingly, the Keydets have played four teams in the top six in this category — The Citadel, Richmond, William & Mary, and Charleston Southern (CSU being the lone victory on VMI’s schedule to date).

VMI has struggled on offense all season. It ranks very low in the FCS in several offensive categories, including total offense (112th), pass efficiency (113th), and scoring offense (115th).

Starting quarterback Eric Kordenbreck has thrown four touchdown passes while being intercepted seven times. He has only completed 48% of his passes. His backup, Adam Morgan, has posted good numbers in limited duty. I wouldn’t be surprised if he played against The Citadel.

VMI is only averaging 3.4 yards per rushing attempt. Chaz Jones is a redshirt senior who has received the bulk of the carries for the Keydets. He has seven rushing touchdowns. Jones also has thirteen pass receptions.

Another redshirt senior, Tracy Hairston, is VMI’s primary receiving threat, leading the team in receptions. He is also the Keydets’ regular kick returner.

Defensively, the Keydets are allowing slightly over 30 points per game, although that is partly a result of the problems on offense (including a time of possession differential of over five minutes versus its opponents). The one area VMI is weakest on defense, pass efficiency, is not exactly a strength for The Citadel. VMI has only intercepted one pass all season, which doesn’t help its turnover margin (-8).

Opponents are averaging a shade over 175 yards per game on the ground against the Keydets. The goal of Triple O’Higgins for the game on Saturday should be to try to double that total, at the very least.

VMI’s two top defensive players are linebacker A.J. Gross and strong safety Byron Allen, both of whom were pre-season all-league picks in the Big South. Unfortunately for the Keydets, promising defensive back Demetrius Phillips left school earlier this week.

VMI’s numbers in the punt game are not good, a major issue for a team as offensively challenged as the Keydets. VMI is not winning the battle of field position in most of its games. The Keydets have had three punts blocked this season. I bet Domonic Jones is interested in that statistic.

Last week, I called the Western Carolina game a “must-win” game for the Bulldogs, and they won it. This Saturday’s game against VMI is also a “must-win”, and not just because it’s a rivalry game.

It’s a game The Citadel is expected to win. There really aren’t a whole lot of games like that on the Bulldogs’ schedule in any given year, and when there are, the team must take full advantage.

Having said that, I don’t think it’s going to be easy. VMI is not a good team, but it’s a team that is going to play hard throughout. It will match The Citadel in that respect in a way that few other squads do.

Also, a win over The Citadel would make VMI’s season. The Bulldogs in the past have struggled with some very poor VMI teams; it’s important that The Citadel does exactly what it did last week in Cullowhee, namely start strong and not let up. The longer VMI stays in the game, the more the Keydets will start to believe they can win it.

Bobby Ross will be at Johnson Hagood on Saturday, having the honors at the pregame coin toss. I think that’s really cool.

I’ll be in the stadium too. I want to see the coveted Silver Shako in person again, and I want to see The Citadel retain the precious trophy for another year. It’s important.

Game Review, 2011: Western Carolina

The Citadel 35, Western Carolina 7.

The Bulldogs did exactly what they were supposed to do on Saturday. Facing an inferior opponent that was in a state approaching disarray, The Citadel started fast (!), took a commanding lead and never let Western Carolina into the game.  The game was a must-win, and the Bulldogs came through with a very solid performance.

Random thoughts:

— Kevin Hardy’s opening kickoff return, which went for 59 yards and set up the game’s first touchdown, was by far The Citadel’s best all season. Kickoff returns have been an area of concern for the Bulldogs; here is hoping Hardy’s effort will lead to more big plays in the return game.

— Six different Bulldogs rushed for at least 40 yards (Aaron Miller added 30). Eight different Bulldogs carried the ball, led by Darien Robinson’s 106 yards.

One of the more interesting aspects of the game is that while it was a “must-win” (at least from a fan perspective), a number of reserves saw significant time.  That had been the case on defense in the previous two games, but against WCU several offensive backups played a lot of snaps.

That may be one reason the offense had a bit of a lull midway through the contest, but with a three-touchdown lead that was basically unassailable, I didn’t have any problems with the coaching staff giving younger players an opportunity to get experience.

— The passing game is still a problem.  On Saturday, the Bulldogs completed 2 of 5 passes for just 12 yards, with an interception.  Speaking of the interception, I think the play call leading to it may have been a mistake.

The Citadel’s first drive of the third quarter was going rather well, with runs of 4, 6, 57, and 5 yards (the 57-yarder coming from Rickey Anderson).  On 2nd-and-5 from the WCU 25, though, Miller attempted a pass that was intercepted near the goal line.

A 21-0 lead early in the third quarter is not insurmountable (although Saturday’s game might have been the exception to the rule).  I would have liked to have seen the Bulldogs continue to run the ball against a defense which at that point seemed unable to stop the run, and grab a four-touchdown margin.  Instead, the pick ended the drive and kept Western Carolina at least nominally in the game.

Now, there are decent reasons to throw the ball in that situation (keeping the defense honest, letting Miller get comfortable making decisions when passing, etc.), but I favored a no-nonsense ground assault in that sequence.  Not a big deal, obviously, and I risk being the type of fan who complains when the team doesn’t throw it, then complains when it does.  Then again, as a fan, I have a constitutional right to be irrational.

— It would have been nice for the defense to get a shutout, but that will have to wait for another time and place.  Incidentally, The Citadel’s last road shutout in Southern Conference play came in 1992, against Appalachian State. We all know what else happened in 1992.

— I would be surprised if Western Carolina coach Dennis Wagner is back after this season; he may not last the rest of the campaign.  Included in the game story in the Asheville Citizen-Times were three paragraphs noting the lack of fans in the stadium after halftime, along with quotes from dissatisfied students.

That was coupled with an editorial (from the same writer who penned the game story) entitled “Cats Uninspiring in Homecoming Debacle”, which included the following commentary:

In 12 years of covering this program, I have never seen the Catamounts play so poorly at home as they did in a 35-7 loss to The Citadel — not even when D-II Tusculum chopped the Cats up like firewood last fall.

— The school’s release includes two video clips of post-game interviews with Kevin Higgins and Tolu Akindele.  If you want to see how a pro responds to a leading question that he has no interest in answering, check out the Higgins clip at around the 48-second mark. He doesn’t really care if WCU didn’t have an “edge”, and isn’t about to throw a fellow coach under the bus anyway.

— I believe the reporter in the video asking Higgins and Akindele those questions was Asheville Citizen-Times scribe Tyler Norris Goode, who wrote the above-linked game story and editorial.  If you had read the game story in The Post and Courier, you may have noticed that he also wrote that article.

Regular beat writer Jeff Hartsell didn’t write the game story because he wasn’t in Cullowhee, as The Post and Courier elected not to send a writer to the game, a decision apparently not made by the newspaper’s sports department.  It’s the first time I can recall the paper not sending a reporter to cover a Southern Conference game involving the local football team in…well, I can’t remember another time.

Obviously these are tough times for the newspaper business, so it’s not shocking the paper would cut an occasional corner.  This time it came at the expense of coverage for The Citadel’s football team, which should be a concern for any fan of the military college.

I’m hopeful it was just a one-time thing.  Presumably there will be no issues with coverage for the remaining four games on the schedule, which includes two home games and road games against nearby opponents Georgia Southern and South Carolina.  It’s a situation that bears watching, however.

Next up: VMI.  It’s time for the long-awaited return of the Military Classic of the South, as the two schools battle for the coveted Silver Shako.  I’m looking forward to this one.

A quick look at The Citadel’s future football schedules

One of the many curious things about college football is that fans often are just as interested (if not more interested) in what will happen in the future than what is happening right now.  I’m talking mostly about recruiting and scheduling, of course.

With this post, I’m going to wildly speculate on potential scheduling options for The Citadel.  This is something Jeff Hartsell briefly mentioned Tuesday.  The Citadel will play eight Southern Conference games each season.  In 2011 and 2012, that means the Bulldogs will play three non-conference games (11-game regular season).  In 2013 and 2014, the calendar will allow for a 12-game regular season for FCS schools, meaning The Citadel can play four non-conference games.

Each year one of The Citadel’s non-conference games has to be a road “guarantee” game against a BCS opponent, for budgetary reasons.  Also returning to the Bulldogs’ schedule in 2011 is VMI.  The battle for the coveted Silver Shako will resume at Johnson Hagood Stadium, with the teams alternating home-and-home for six years. It is my understanding that those years are consecutive, although I haven’t been able to confirm that yet.

Another non-conference game each season will take place against a non-conference opponent that won’t demand a return trip — in other words, teams like Chowan and Webber International (or more preferably, Presbyterian and Newberry).  I’ll call this game the Designated Home Opener, or DHO.

The 2011 non-conference schedule will feature VMI (home), South Carolina (away), and a DHO to be determined (home).

The 2012 non-conference schedule will feature VMI (away), North Carolina State (away), and a DHO to be determined (home).  In that season, the Bulldogs will only play five games at Johnson Hagood Stadium.

Starting in 2013, things get a little interesting.  Again, assuming the VMI series is for six consecutive years (assumptions always being dangerous), The Citadel’s non-league slate would feature VMI (home), Clemson (away), a DHO (home), and another team to be determined.

The 2014 season would include a road game against VMI, a DHO, and two games to be determined (with one of them definitely having to be a guarantee game).

That leaves Larry Leckonby with important decisions to make about scheduling in 2013 and 2014.  Do you add a second BCS guarantee game in those seasons?  Or do you add a second DHO-type team?

There is another possibility, one that would be very popular with alumni, and that is to schedule a game against Army or Navy (or Air Force, I suppose, although I don’t think there is nearly as much interest in that potential matchup).

A quick scan at future schedules for Army and Navy shows that there is a spot possibly available for an FCS opponent in 2013 for Army and 2014 for Navy (in 2014, Army has scheduled Fordham, which would have been a tough ticket seven decades ago; Navy is playing Delaware in 2013).  Of course, there is a chance that none of the academies would be interested in playing The Citadel anyway.

Scheduling a service academy or a second BCS school would be more problematic in 2014, as the VMI game would be played on the road that year.  I don’t know that Leckonby wants to put the team in position to play only five home games and seven road contests, with two of those being against FBS opponents (and that’s assuming he can find two FBS opponents).

One of the things that will be a factor is attendance at Johnson Hagood Stadium.  If The Citadel continues to have disappointing numbers at the gate, Leckonby may be more likely to eschew a possible sixth (or seventh) home game to grab a more lucrative road guarantee.

Another possibility would be a series like the one The Citadel had with Princeton, a two-game home-and-home (in 2013-2014) against an FCS school from outside the SoCon.   That seems a less likely option to me, but you never know.

We’ll see what happens.  All of the above is mostly uninformed guesswork by yours truly, of course, and should be taken with a grain of salt, assuming that it even deserves the grain.

Searching the sky for locusts

Last year around this time, The Citadel lost a game at Appalachian State, 75-71 in overtime.  With the loss the Bulldogs dropped to 0-13 in the Southern Conference (5-17 overall, with just one of those victories coming against a Division I team).  It was the 17th consecutive loss to Appalachian State, a school that The Citadel had not defeated in basketball since 1996 (and had not beaten in Boone since 1993).

What a difference a year makes.

On Thursday night, The Citadel defeated the Mountaineers in Boone 74-72, ending that long losing skid to Appy, and moved to 9-4 in the SoCon.  With the College of Charleston losing to Western Carolina, The Citadel currently sits in second place in the South Division.  If the season ended today (my understanding is it won’t), the Bulldogs would have a bye for the first round of the conference tournament.

There is also the small matter of last night’s win being the sixth straight conference victory for The Citadel, notable because, almost unbelievably (unless you follow Bulldog basketball), it’s the first time that the school has ever won six consecutive games in league play.  Ever.  In case you were wondering, The Citadel has been playing basketball in the Southern Conference since the 1936-37 season.

It almost didn’t happen this year, either.  The Bulldogs led 61-59 when Ed Conroy called a 30-second timeout with 5:49 left in the game.  The Citadel scored at least one point on each of its next seven possessions (including a big three-pointer by Zach Urbanus), yet with 43 seconds left the Bulldogs found themselves leading by only that same two-point margin.  With 14 seconds left, The Citadel turned it over (on what looked like a bad call, but Mountaineer fans could make a good argument that a similar call had gone The Citadel’s way three minutes earlier).  Appalachian State had a chance to tie or win the game, but good defense led to an off-balance three that never had a chance.

It was a fairly well-played game, particularly offensively.   The difference was Appalachian State’s three-point shooting, not as much the poor percentage, but the fact the Mountaineers attempted 17 shots beyond the arc when they were converting two-point attempts at a 60% clip, and also getting it done from the foul line (16-18).  I know the three-point shooting is part of their game, but when you’re having success inside and not shooting well from distance, jacking up threes just strikes me as not the way to go (although Appy did get its fair share of offensive rebounds from the missed three-pointers).

The Citadel only attempted ten three-pointers, making four of them.  I think all ten came within the “natural” flow of the offense — in other words, none of them were forced.  The Citadel did a good job of keeping things relatively simple offensively, feeding the ball to Demetrius Nelson on  a regular basis.  In the second half, Cameron Wells began creating shots for himself and taking advantage of driving opportunities.  Cosmo Morabbi added a three and also had the distinction of being identified twice by the App State radio announcer as Jonathan Brick, which I thought was amusing, although not as funny as when the announcer got Brick confused with Bryan Streeter.  (In all fairness, the announcer wasn’t bad at all; he just had a tough time with Brick for some reason.)

On Saturday, The Citadel travels to Cullowhee to take on Western Carolina, the team it beat to start this six-game streak, in what was arguably the Bulldogs’ best performance of the season (other than the free throw shooting).  It will take another good effort to complete a sweep, particularly since the Catamounts are undefeated at home.  WCU is currently tied atop the SoCon North with UT-Chattanooga, both at 7-5 in the league.

Speaking of conference standings, I’m glad that The Citadel (at least for the moment) has pushed ahead of the CofC into the #2 spot in the SoCon South.  On Saturday night the College plays at Davidson in a game televised by ESPN2, with none other than Dick Vitale as the analyst.  My guess is that he will talk about Stephen Curry for 60% of the game, Bobby Cremins for 30% of the time, and Duke when not talking about Curry or Cremins, but I am hoping that since the game features not the current first- and second-place teams in the division, but the first- and third-place teams, that he might briefly mention the team actually sitting in second place at the moment.  I’m fairly confident he has never mentioned The Citadel during a broadcast, unless it was calling us a cupcake on somebody’s schedule.

Brief non-basketball note:  The Citadel and VMI are going to resume their series in football, beginning in 2011.  I’m still annoyed the teams will go three seasons between meetings in the first place.  At least The Coveted Silver Shako remains in Charleston, where it belongs.

Speaking of non-basketball notes and VMI, congrats to the Bulldog wrestlers for beating their counterparts from Lexington.  I don’t claim to follow wrestling too much (despite having once announced a wrestling match — Jim Ross would have been impressed), but 21-9 is a good solid whuppin’.