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.

2011 Football Game 6: The Citadel vs. Appalachian State

The Citadel vs. Appalachian State, to be played at historic Johnson Hagood Stadium, with kickoff at 2:00 pm ET on Saturday, October 15.  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.

This post will serve as a combo review of Wofford/preview of Appy.  I’m going to be having “combo posts” for at least two more weeks, if not longer.

Wofford 43, The Citadel 14.

I’m not sure there is a lot to say about this game that isn’t blindingly obvious, but I’ll try my best anyway.

— In his weekly press conference, Kevin Higgins noted that Wofford’s punt return TD “took the wind out of [the team’s] sails”.  I would say it probably just solidified things in that department; the die was cast when the Terriers moved down the field with ease on the opening possession of the game and scored their first touchdown.

— The horrendous start probably put the kibosh on any cadet corps frivolity, as it’s hard to get wound up for a game when it takes on “no hoper” status that quickly.  I’ve seen some criticism of the corps for its lack of enthusiasm on Saturday, but to be honest I’m inclined to give the cadets a mulligan.

Plus, the issues with the atmosphere at Johnson Hagood Stadium go a lot further than the corps.  The scene on Saturday was particularly jarring, as the tailgating crowd was huge, but when I turned around to survey things shortly before the game started, there just weren’t many people in the stands.  It did fill in a bit a few minutes later; I guess folks knew there was no reason to show up on time, since the Bulldogs don’t score in the first quarter anyway.

I guess a lot of people just wanted to stay in the parking lots and listen to the game on the radio, or perhaps watch/listen to the South Carolina game instead.

It’s a problem.  I’ve typed that before, and I suspect I’ll be typing it again.  Getting those people into the stands is going to be a tall order, at least until The Citadel starts winning on a consistent basis.

The game against Appalachian State will likely be a bit different, as it will be Parents’ Weekend.

— Wofford did not commit a turnover on Saturday and also did not commit a penalty, which was a story in itself, as the Terriers entered the game as the most-penalized team in the Southern Conference.  That was something of an anomaly, as Wofford is usually not a heavily-penalized outfit (much like The Citadel).

In the last four games against The Citadel, Wofford has committed a total of five penalties (for a combined 30 yards).  That includes a delay-of-game penalty the Terriers took on purpose in order to set up a short punt in the 2008 contest.  Only one of the penalties was for more than five yards (a holding penalty in that same 2008 game).

I am not a defensive coordinator, and never will be, and I’m not going to pretend to understand the intricacies involved in running a defense.  When I see a box score in which the opponent did not commit a turnover or a penalty, though, I wonder if the problem is at least partly a lack of aggression.

Wofford aggressively defended The Citadel’s option by having a man go “down hard to attack the fullback“.  The tactic led to bad reads and mistakes by the Bulldogs.  In other words, the Terriers forced the issue.

Mike Ayers was quoted after the game as saying that to “stop the triple option, [you] have to put teams in negative plays.”  Wofford did that.  The Citadel’s defense did not. That has been a theme for the Bulldogs D against Wofford for a number of years now, as the Terriers have scored at least 28 points against The Citadel in every game of the Kevin Higgins era.

— This is possibly the best team Wofford has ever had, which is one reason I wasn’t expecting The Citadel to win on Saturday.  However, I wasn’t expecting a walkover, either, and I was really disappointed by the outcome.  A lot of other alums/fans are just plain angry about the way the series with Wofford has gone in recent years, and you know what?   They have every right to be upset.  There is no excuse.

Something to think about:  there are only 11 seniors listed on Wofford’s entire roster. Eight of them are on the two-deep (The Citadel had nine seniors on the two-deep released for the game against Wofford).  Now, Wofford does not list redshirt juniors as seniors, but as juniors (including Eric Breitenstein), but the fact is that a lot of the Terriers will be back next season.

They probably won’t be as good in 2012.  The eight seniors on the two-deep include starting quarterback Mitch Allen and all three starting defensive linemen (one of whom, Ameet Pall, is Wofford’s best player).  The Terriers will continue to run their stuff on offense and defense, however, and will probably run it well.

— I felt badly for Cass Couey, who had an excellent game punting the ball, but whose efforts were almost completely wasted.  The punt that was returned for a TD was outstanding, with his coverage unit having plenty of time to get to the returner; they just didn’t get the job done.  Then he boomed a magnificent 66-yarder to the Wofford one-yard line — but the Terriers promptly went right down the field and scored.

— For Military Appreciation Day, the Bulldogs made yet another helmet change, although this one was more subtle and did not involve the logo, but rather the stripe. You can see the change in this photo of Ben Dupree:  Link

It’s a “digital camo” stripe, to match the “C” logo on the helmet.  My verdict:  an interesting idea that did not work.  It looked from some vantage points like a regular stripe decal that had been partially scraped off.

Before I get to Appalachian State, some SoCon stats…

— The Bulldogs are in last place in the league in a number of different offensive categories, including third-down conversion rate, fourth-down conversion rate, scoring, total offense, first downs, pass efficiency offense, and red zone offense (although the last one is a touch misleading; I would rate The Citadel’s red zone O ahead of Samford’s, based on TD/FG ratio).

I included pass efficiency and not passing offense in that list, because it’s not surprising The Citadel would be last in total passing, given the triple option.  Wofford is next-to-last in that category — but the Terriers are third in the league in pass efficiency.  When it does pass the ball, Wofford tends to make it count.

Defensively, the Bulldogs are solid statistically across the board, with the exception of defensive pass efficiency, which is a little puzzling.

The Citadel is also last in the league in both kickoff coverage and kickoff returns.  The Bulldogs really need to pick it up in those areas.  To me, the returners have seemed a little too tentative when moving upfield after receiving kicks.

In the SoCon media teleconference, Mountaineers coach Jerry Moore described his quarterback, DeAndre Presley, as “very questionable” for the game this Saturday after suffering an injury to his throwing shoulder against Wofford two weekends ago (Appy had a bye last week).  However, there is a chance he could play.

Not everyone remembers this, but Presley was questionable for the game against The Citadel last year, too.  He started and threw five touchdown passes in three quarters of action.

I’m guessing Presley plays this Saturday, too.

— In that teleconference, Moore was clearly annoyed by his team’s play this season, and seemed (at least to me) overly upset about the Mountaineers’ big loss to Virginia Tech in the season opener.  I realize that Appy as a program thinks it can be competitive against any team, even a traditional FBS power (and of course, the Hokies had lost the year before to James Madison, so it wasn’t exactly the impossible dream).  I was struck by how much the loss seemed to bother the veteran coach, though.

— Appalachian State starts two  freshmen on the offensive line (the center and left tackle), which may explain in part its sluggish offensive numbers (just two offensive touchdowns in its last two games).  On the other hand, there is still plenty of experienced talent on the offense, including Presley, the dangerous running back/returner Travaris Cadet, and the aptly named Brian Quick.

Fans of The Citadel may remember Quick catching a 74-yard TD pass late in the contest at Johnson Hagood two years ago, which tied a game the Mountaineers would eventually win in overtime.  That wasn’t unusual for Quick, who is the FCS active leader in reception yardage and yards per reception.

On defense, the Mountaineers are led by nosetackle Dan Wylie.  The regular starting defensive ends for Appy are “true” freshmen.  Appalachian State has a bevy of experienced linebackers and defensive backs, including Jeremy Kimbrough, who was suspended for the Wofford game after some hijinks in the Mountaineers’ win over Chattanooga.

Appalachian State’s front seven is big; the three starters on the d-line average 287 lbs. per man, and the linebackers are a solid 224 lbs. on average.

Last year, of course, the Bulldogs did not complete a pass against the Appy defense (0-6).

Placekicker/punter Sam Martin is usually reliable, although he had a tough afternoon against Wofford, missing all three of his field goal attempts (two of which were 33-yarders).

I don’t know what’s going to happen on Saturday.  I am expecting, however, a better performance from the Bulldogs than I saw against Wofford.  Not a better effort, as I don’t question last week’s effort.  I would also like to see The Citadel break its first-quarter offensive duck.  It’s time for Triple O’Higgins to get off to a quick start.

I’ll be in attendance on Saturday, along with a lot of proud parents, and a bunch of seniors with shiny new rings.  Good for them.  I must admit I treasure my diploma a bit more than my ring, but I understand the importance of that band of gold.

Speaking of diplomas…is The Citadel going to continue handing out sheepskin?  I certainly hope so.

Go Dogs!

2011 Football, Game 5: The Citadel vs. Wofford

The Citadel vs. Wofford, to be played at historic Johnson Hagood Stadium, with kickoff at 1:00 pm ET on Saturday, October 8.  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.

This is a combination review of the Chattanooga game and preview of the Wofford contest.  I hope to get back to separate review/preview posts following this week; we’ll see.  I’m still recovering from recent travels and a few other things, and I’m not sure I’m still up to speed after being out of the college football loop for the better part of a week (which is a scary thing, believe me).

That’s a long-winded way of saying this particular post may be all over the place. Apologies in advance.  Now, where to begin?

The Citadel 28, Chattanooga 27.

I didn’t expect to find out the final score of the game until Sunday, but I had a chance early Saturday evening to go online.  I checked the score.  It was halftime, and the Mocs were up 24-0.  Ugh.

After that, I was thinking that I could wait to find out the final score for another few hours, or a few days for that matter.  When I got another opportunity about an hour later to go online again, though, I checked the score out anyway.  Hey, I’m a glutton for punishment.  However, it was now 27-14.  Better.  Then the screen automatically refreshed.  27-21.

Chad Billingslea, reportedly a nice guy, had just very nicely blocked a punt, and Rod Harland had run it in for a touchdown (or as French-Canadian announcers would have called it, a touché; Danny Reed should try to make that part of his repertoire).  At this point all of Canada became transfixed by the dramatic events taking place in Chattanooga, as The Citadel completed the comeback via its Triple O’Higgins attack.

Well, really, it was just me who was transfixed, and I had to follow the last few minutes of the game on twitter, which wasn’t exactly optimal, but I’ll take the result.

It is still hard to believe The Citadel rallied from a 27-point deficit on the road and beat a ranked team.  It is, to be sure, one for the record books.  There seemed to be some uncertainty about whether it was the largest comeback ever, as most reports listed the game as the biggest comeback victory for the Bulldogs since a 1973 game against (naturally) Chattanooga.  However, I did a little research, and I’m fairly confident it is the new standard-bearer in the category of “biggest comebacks” for The Citadel.

Prior to Saturday, The Citadel had rallied twice from 20-point deficits to win games in its history.  One of those games was the aforementioned 1973 contest against Chattanooga; the Bulldogs were trailing 20-0 before scoring just before the end of the first half.  Led by Gene Dotson (making his first career start) and Andrew Johnson, however, The Citadel scored 28 unanswered points and beat UTC 28-20.

That game was played at Johnson Hagood Stadium, as was another 20-point comeback victory that took place 33 years later, in 2007.  The Citadel trailed Furman 27-7 midway through the second quarter before rallying to win in overtime, 54-51. Duran Lawson and Tory Cooper carried the day for the Bulldogs.

Overtime wasn’t yet a part of college football in 1989.  That year, The Citadel trailed Western Carolina 22-0 before rallying to tie the game, 22-22 (which would be the final score).  Incidentally, that game was played in Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, thanks to Hurricane Hugo.  The 22-point comeback was the largest deficit overcome to avoid a loss before Saturday.

I decided to check scores prior to 1973 and see if there were any possibilities for previous comebacks of an equal or greater magnitude.  This wasn’t as hard as it sounds, because there really weren’t many games in which both teams scored a lot of points.  Usually, when one team scored a lot of points, it was a blowout.  The Citadel did not play in a game in which both teams scored at least 20 points until 1951, a 27-21 loss to VMI at Johnson Hagood Stadium.

The Bulldogs’ first win in a “20-20” game came in 1958, when The Citadel upset Memphis State, 28-26.  There was no big comeback in that one, though the Bulldogs did score late to pull out the victory.  Jerry Nettles and Paul Maguire (he of the “fancy broken field running”) were key players in the win.  I don’t know if any of the current Bulldogs were as emotional on Saturday as was one of the 1958 players after the Memphis victory:

One Bulldog was so taken up with drama of the moment that he just collapsed at midfield and cried as teammates stumbled over his prostrate form.

There was also a 22-21 victory over Arkansas State in 1960 (Eddie Teague went for two and the win at the end of the game, and got it), a 27-22 win over George Washington in 1963, and a series of high-scoring affairs during the Red Parker era, but none of them involved large comeback wins for The Citadel.  The Citadel, featuring Tony Passander at quarterback, never trailed in a 40-28 win over Maine in 1969, although an account of the game states the Bulldogs lost seven fumbles.

In 1971 the Bulldogs “bombed” Bucknell 42-28, but The Citadel didn’t need any late-game heroics, thanks to three first-half TD passes by John Rosa.  I wonder whatever happened to him.  In 1972, though, The Citadel rallied from 11 points down to beat the Bison 38-35 (after blowing a 17-point lead of its own).

I checked out the other Red Parker high-scoring specials (1968: 28-21 over Davidson and 24-21 over William&Mary; 1969:  34-28 over Davidson; 1971:  44-37 over Boston University, 25-24 over VMI, 52-35 over UTC, 35-33 over Furman; 1972:  28-21 over Appalachian State), and none of them featured a big comeback for The Citadel.

I could have missed something, but I think that I looked at every possible game. Saturday’s game against Chattanooga stands alone at the top for comebacks.

Okay, that’s the historical perspective.  History, though, will mean little to nothing when Eric Breitenstein and the Wofford Terriers come to town this weekend.  What does the victory over Chattanooga mean for the team going forward?

I didn’t see the game, obviously, or even get to listen to the live radio broadcast, so I’m somewhat limited in making observations.  I did watch the highlights from The Kevin Higgins Show on Bulldog Insider, which helped a little.  That, reading the various game recaps, and a check of the statistics all lead to the following comments:

— I really appreciated Higgins stating during his show that (I’m paraphrasing) there are only eleven games, and you have to be ready to play in each and every one of them.  Coming out flat is just not acceptable.

— The Citadel still has not scored in the first quarter this season, which is obviously a problem.  The Bulldogs have found themselves in an uphill battle in all four games as a result.

— Kevin Higgins is trying to reverse a couple of trends.  Before Saturday, under Higgins The Citadel was 2-21 versus ranked opponents and 7-20 in the month of October.  He killed two birds with one stone on Saturday.  He’s going to get a chance to do the same thing against Wofford and Appalachian State.

— The Bulldogs lead all of FCS in fewest penalties per game, and least penalty yardage per game.  However, The Citadel’s opponents aren’t committing many penalties either.  While the Bulldogs commit on average only three penalties per game, their opponents are only averaging four per contest.  The penalty yardage difference is similar (24.5 ypg for The Citadel, 37.2 for its opponents).

— The Citadel is only 1 for 7 on 4th-down conversions this season, including a failed fourth down try on Saturday (that ended up being a lost fumble).  Converting on fourth downs is an occasional necessity for a triple option offense.

Wofford is 9 for 11 on 4th-down conversions this season.

— Opponents have been in the “red zone” fourteen times this season against the Bulldogs D.  Those fourteen trips have resulted in three touchdowns, two PATs, and eight field goals.  Three times opponents failed to score.

The Citadel offensively has been in the red zone eleven times, three fewer than its opponents, and like its opponents has failed to score on three occasions.  However, five of its eight scores have been touchdowns.  As a result, The Citadel has scored 44 “red zone” points.  Opponents have scored…44 red zone points.

— In the second half (and OT), the Bulldogs’ defense has allowed a total of 18 points in four games (with only one touchdown).

— The defense has forced seven turnovers in four games, three interceptions and four fumbles.  Davis Boyle has collected four of them (two INTs and two fumble recoveries).

— The Citadel has to stop fumbling.  Six more mishandles occurred on Saturday, with three resulting in turnovers.  The Bulldogs are now on pace to fumble 39 times this season, which would more than likely give The Citadel the unwanted distinction of leading FCS in that category two seasons in a row.

It is easy to see how the fumbles affected field position by just looking at the drive charts.  UTC had five scoring drives, with three of them (including two of its three TDs) coming after lost Bulldog fumbles.  The two touchdown drives started on the UTC 42-yard line and The Citadel 7-yard line.

One of the two field goals came early in the third quarter, with Chattanooga starting out with a first-and-goal on the Bulldogs’ nine-yard line.  The defense being able to hold the Mocs to a FG was critical.

— The only real negative for the defense on Saturday were two long pass plays, one for a 60-yard TD and another that set up a field goal.  That’s two long pass plays for TDs in two weeks, after Elon scored on a 41-yarder the week before.

The Citadel can’t afford to have Wofford hit one or two deep passes, which is a Terrier trademark.  Wofford only has 17 pass completions this season, but four have been for touchdowns, including a 66-yarder against Clemson (the average WC completion has gone for 23.4 yards).

— Cass Couey had a very good day punting, allowing no return yardage and downing two punts inside the 20, including one downed at the three-yard line.

— B.J. Coleman had thrown 88 passes against The Citadel at Finley Stadium over two games without being sacked before he was finally brought down by Rod Harland. Coleman threw two more passes and was then sacked again.

— White jerseys, white pants.  Appropriate.

— This game will feature two outstanding defensive lines.  Wofford’s DL includes Ameet Pall, the preseason SoCon defensive player of the year.  He is a native of Montreal who really should have gone to McGill, but perhaps he prefers South Carolina winters.  Hard to blame him.

His friends on the d-line aren’t too bad themselves.  Ask Appalachian State quarterback DeAndre Presley, who injured his shoulder against Wofford.  It could be that having what now amounts to a two-quarterback system may not be such a bad thing for The Citadel.

Pall is going to be a key figure in this game.  Will the Bulldogs option off him?  Will they be able to do so?

— Wofford is 0-1 when it wins the coin toss, 3-0 when it doesn’t.  Obviously that is an important statistic.

— This game, as stated at the top of the post, is not televised.  It’s the first time in six years the game between Wofford and The Citadel has not been on TV.

— Last year Wofford beat The Citadel 35-0.  Not only did the Bulldogs fail to score, they didn’t have a snap inside the Terriers’ 20-yard line.  The defense played well for the most part, but Wofford took advantage of great field position for the entire game (the average drive for the Terriers started at its own 44-yard line).

I am hopeful that the game against Chattanooga will propel the Bulldogs to a successful season.  That doesn’t necessarily mean there is going to be a victory for The Citadel this Saturday, however.  In looking over Wofford’s season statistics, game recaps, and other various accounts, it’s clear that this is a particularly strong Terriers squad.

Wofford has a system, and traditionally runs it well, and this year’s edition seems even more adept at running it than the norm.  The worst thing that happened to Wofford against Appalachian State was probably a ten-minute drive that resulted in no points.  If that’s the biggest negative, then there were a lot of positives.

The Citadel can’t even count on complacency, but that’s the Bulldogs’ own fault (in a good way).  Bottom line:  it will take more than great halftime speeches to win this game.

Having said that, I’m looking forward to Saturday’s game and the rest of the season. Maybe, though, it would be better not to spot the rest of our opponents a four-touchdown lead…

2011 Football, Game 4: The Citadel vs. Chattanooga

The Citadel at Chattanooga, to be played at Finley Stadium, with kickoff at 6:05 pm ET on Saturday, October 1.  The game will not be televised.  The game can be heard on radio via The Citadel Sports Network, with “Voice of the Bulldogs” Danny Reed calling the action alongside analyst Walt Nadzak.  Bulldog Insider will also provide free audio; the only video available for this game is being provided by Chattanooga as part of a subscription service.

This post will serve as a combination review of the Elon game and preview of the Chattanooga contest.  I’m combining them because A) I’ve been a little busy, and B) I’m not sure I have enough to say about the two games to justify separate posts.

I’ll have to do the same thing next week, because I definitely won’t have the chance to write a review of the UTC game, as I will be travelling.  I won’t even be able to listen to Danny Reed and Walt Nadzak call the game on the radio.

That’s what I did for the Elon game, as I had another obligation.  As a result I found myself listening to Reed and Nadzak as I drove through a series of thunderstorms (one would pop up about every five minutes; it was ridiculous) while trying to navigate I-26 on a football Saturday.  Between the rain and the Gamecock fans heading to Columbia (some of whom drove about as well as Stephen Garcia threw the ball that night), it was a bit of an adventure.

I concentrated on Reed’s call, though, and he did a solid job informing his listeners about the game.  I also learned he likes to call running backs “sidecars”.

I did go back and look at some of the game later, courtesy of Elon’s video recording, which came in handy.  It helped flesh out some of the observations that follow, though it’s not the same thing as seeing the game “live”, either in person or via an internet stream.

I want to talk about play-calling for a moment.  Specifically, I’m going to write about two play calls in the first quarter.  Now, I don’t pretend to be any kind of coach; as I have said numerous times before, I’m just a dude with a computer.  It’s obviously not an easy task to coordinate an offense or defense, or call plays and formations.  There was a good article on this subject in The Post and Courier last week that featured Clemson defensive coordinator Kevin Steele.  It was quite illuminating (I have to say part of Steele’s routine struck me as overkill, but what do I know).

Anyway…

— On the first series of the game, the Bulldogs had second and eight from their own 31-yard line.  The Citadel ran an end-around receiver pass, with wideout Luke Caldwell’s toss to Kevin Hardy falling incomplete.  The play did not appear to fool the Elon defense.

I’m not sure that’s a good play to run at the beginning of the game, when you’re trying to establish an offensive rhythm.  Having said that, a variation of that play helped The Citadel win the game against Samford last year (and worked perfectly in one of the pre-season scrimmages).

It didn’t matter much, because on the next play Ben Dupree reversed field and scampered for 36 yards, extending the drive.  That would eventually lead to the play call that really bothered me.

— The Bulldogs had third-and-goal on the Elon three-yard line.  Dupree got the snap, took a quick drop, and threw a slant pass in the general direction of Domonic Jones. The pass was not accurate, but would not have been completed even if it had been.  It was well defended.

1) The team is on the three-yard line, with two downs to score, running the triple option.  Even if the Bulldogs don’t score on third down, the opportunity is there to go for it on 4th down if The Citadel picks up a yard or two.  That’s what the offense is all about.

2) Okay, so the coaches want to mix things up with a pass — but why on third down? That’s the one down Elon might have expected a pass play.  In that sequence, I think throwing the ball on first or second down is the better plan.

3) Also, the pass itself included no play-action.

4) Jones is 6’5″.  Maybe a fade might have been a better idea than a slant.

A lot of people probably concentrated on the short field goal that was missed following that play, but to me the real missed opportunity occurred one or two plays earlier.

Speaking of the kicking game, I am on record as saying I don’t blame the kickers. One thing that anyone following The Citadel knows is that the placekicking has been inconsistent for several years.  That’s not about the kickers, the holders, or the snappers.  That’s coaching.  Either the players need to be coached better, or the coaches need to find better players.

The missed field goals are frustrating, but almost as problematic is the kick return unit, which is averaging less than 20 yards per return.  Against Elon, the Bulldogs started at their own 29-, 10-, 27-, and 30-yard lines after Phoenix kickoffs.  That needs to improve.

I thought Elon coach Jason Swepson inadvertently assisted The Citadel on Saturday with a couple of curious decisions.  After an Aaron Mellette touchdown reception gave Elon a 12-7 lead with 12:55 remaining in the third quarter, Swepson elected to go for two points, despite the fact that almost 28 minutes remained in the game.  The Phoenix didn’t make the conversion, which struck me as justice served, because nobody should start chasing points with so much time left in a game.

After a Bulldog fumble, Elon had the ball at The Citadel 38-yard line with 2:32 remaining in the fourth quarter.  After a Phoenix first down moved the ball to the 27-yard line, Elon ran the ball (and the clock) to set up a 44-yard field goal attempt, which was missed.  In my opinion, the Phoenix settled too quickly for the long FG try.

After The Citadel’s game notes indicated the Bulldogs were going to wear white jerseys and white pants against Elon, The Citadel broke out navy pants instead.  The Bulldogs wore that combo once last season, versus Wofford.  The Bulldogs lost that game 35-0.  In the two white jerseys/navy pants games, five different Bulldog passers have combined to go 3-14 for 21 yards, and the team has averaged just 7.5 points per game, which is actually worse than the 9.7 ppg the team has averaged in the ten SoCon games played since installing the triple option.

Maybe they should have worn the white pants…

I wrote this three years ago about Chattanooga’s football program, which was in the middle of a 1-11 campaign:

You know it’s been a bad season when the beat writer for the local paper notes that “punter Jeff Lloyd, who lost his starting job for three games, may be the Mocs’ most productive player.”

Later in the column he writes that Lloyd has been effective “when he has been able to get a punt off.”

UTC’s struggles have presented an opportunity for assorted anti-football advocates to step forward and call for the program’s elimination.  The loudest of these voices is a computer science professor at UTC named Joe Dumas.  From the link:

“This is a perfect time for UTC to get out of the football business for good and concentrate on academics while maintaining successful athletic programs like basketball, golf, tennis, etc.”

Well, Chattanooga didn’t drop the football program.  Instead, the school hired alumnus Russ Huesman to coach the team, and that proved to be a very good decision.  Huesman currently has a winning record in both league play (9-8) and overall (14-12), which is quite impressive when you consider the state of the program when he took over.

I did a little googling, but could not find any recent proclamations by Dr. Dumas on the subject of UTC football.  He is still at the school, but seems to be a bit more interested in politics right now, at least from what I could determine.  It is probable he still feels the football program should be eliminated, but it’s hard to make your voice heard on such matters when people are loudly celebrating victories.

Even though the Mocs lost a tough game last week at Appalachian State, you could make an argument that Chattanooga has been the most impressive SoCon team so far this season.  After a 40-7 loss to Nebraska in which the Mocs did not embarrass themselves, UTC reeled off consecutive non-conference FCS wins over Jacksonville State (38-17) and Eastern Kentucky (23-14), the latter a road victory.

Entering the game against Appy, Chattanooga had the most impressive early-season resume of any conference squad.  Against the Mountaineers, UTC did not allow an offensive touchdown, but two defensive TDs by App State did in the Mocs.

B.J. Coleman is in his third year as UTC’s starter after transferring from Tennessee, and is a major reason why the program is on the upswing.  Coleman has 48 career TD passes (against 26 interceptions).  I remember the game two years ago, when Coleman led a comeback victory over The Citadel by throwing 61 passes, somehow including no rushing attempts or sacks.

Coleman’s primary target is Joel Bradford, who was first-team all-SoCon last season and is well on his way to repeating that honor.  Bradford had 15 receptions for 162 yards in the win over Jacksonville State.

Chattanooga rushed for 212 yards against Jacksonville State, but only 32 yards at Appalachian State.  Interestingly, Huesman seemed more upset with his receivers’ blocking than that of his offensive line versus Appy.

On defense, UTC has been solid since the Nebraska game, particularly excelling on third down; its last three opponents as a group only converted 19% of the time in that situation.  Redshirt sophomore middle linebacker Wes Dothard has been the SoCon defensive player of the week for two of the last three weeks.  UTC’s strong linebacking corps also includes Ryan Consiglio, who had 13 tackles in the loss to Appalachian State, and all-name candidate Gunner Miller.

The defensive backfield is excellent, and includes 2010 SoCon freshman of the year Kadeem Wise (who had seven interceptions last season) along with veterans Chris Lewis-Harris and Jordan Tippet.

The Mocs will miss Nick Davison, as the defensive tackle is out for the season after an ACL injury.

Punter Mike Hammons is a three-year starter, but placekicker Nick Pollard is a freshman who has yet to make a field goal of longer than 30 yards.

The Citadel’s defense has been really good so far, to state the obvious.  I was really glad to see the excellent play in the red zone against Elon (after struggling in that department last season against the Phoenix), and the forced turnovers.  It was an outstanding effort from the entire unit.

In the last two years against Chattanooga, though, the D has A) let the quarterback throw the ball 61 times without being sacked, giving up a big lead in the process, and B) allowed 222 rushing yards in a game.

I don’t expect either of those things to occur on Saturday, but UTC’s offense will again pose a stiff challenge.  Obviously giving up around 30 points or so isn’t going to work for The Citadel, given the offensive issues.

At his news conference Monday, Higgins reaffirmed his belief in starter Ben Dupree, while leaving open the possibility of using backup Matt Thompson or even true freshman Aaron Miller.

“Possibly,” Higgins said when asked about using other QBs. “Ben has only started five games now, so there is still a learning curve. He obviously has to get better. Ben has to improve, but if we need to use Matt or Aaron, we will.”

The Citadel had plenty of less-than-stellar passing days last season where Dupree wasn’t involved, like the aforementioned 2-8 (11 yards, plus an interception) against Wofford, or the 0-6 performance versus Appalachian State, or the “3 for us, 3 for them” outing in the Georgia Southern debacle (3 completions, 3 interceptions), or last year’s game against UTC (2-8 for 25 yards and a pick).

I don’t think passing in and of itself would be enough to dislodge Dupree from the #1 QB spot.  If he is having trouble making the reads in the Triple O’Higgins, that would obviously be a different story.  I don’t think that’s what this is about, though.  It’s really about the passing component of the triple option in general not working, whether because of passing, blocking, receiving, play-calling, or all of the above.  Whatever it is, it’s clearly bigger than just one player.

I’ll find out sometime on Sunday how the game went.  I hope it’s worth the wait.

Go Dogs!

2011 Football, Game 3: The Citadel vs. Elon

The Citadel at Elon, to be played at Rhodes Stadium, with kickoff at 1:30 pm ET on Saturday, September 24.  The game will not be televised.  There will also be a webcast on Bulldog Insider (subscription service, and perhaps audio-only), and the game can be heard on radio via The Citadel Sports Network, with “Voice of the Bulldogs” Danny Reed calling the action.

A successful athletics program contributes to a sense of community and institutional pride, is of great interest to students and alumni, and contributes greatly to national visibility.

The above sentence is from Elon’s website; not from its athletics site, but an offshoot from its primary educational URL.  It’s part of the “Elon Commitment“,  which is Elon’s strategic plan for the next ten years — or really eight, as it was formulated in 2009.

Elon is big on long-range goals, and is also big on accomplishing those goals.  As I wrote two years ago, the school has had an amazing transformation over the past four decades.  The money that has been put into Elon is remarkable; it is surely one of the great fundraising success stories in higher education.  The administration at Elon also deserves credit for its master plan to spend that money, a plan helped considerably by a very sensible land purchase made in the early 1970s.

School president Leo Lambert noted two years ago that the Elon Commitment would require about $500 million to come to complete fruition, which is a very ambitious target, but it’s hard to bet against Elon not getting there given what has already been accomplished.

In 2001, Elon opened its new football facility, Rhodes Stadium (named in part for trustee Dusty Rhodes; I guess it’s a rule that if your last name is Rhodes, your nickname has to be “Dusty”).  Earlier this year, the Phoenix put the finishing touches on Alumni Field House, a structure that includes all the ancillary football necessities (including a “hydrotherapy area”; sounds impressive, but for all I know it’s just a shower stall).  Oh, and since this is 2011:

Alumni Field House is pursuing Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification, which is the nationally recognized benchmark for the design, construction and operation of high performance green buildings…The automatic irrigation system will be part of the campus wide system, which is supplied with reclaimed stormwater collected on campus.

There is an interactive touch screen…[with] access to the campus wide electricity monitoring system, which provides real-time electricity consumption information for over 50 campus buildings and will include the Alumni Field House.

You get the idea.  Elon has money, is spending that money, plans on raising more money, and will spend that money too.  One other thing, though.  From one of the above links:

Elon’s athletic peers are fine universities such as William and Mary, Richmond, Furman and Davidson, schools that believe strongly in the student-athlete ideal and understand that the intercollegiate athletic experience is wonderful preparation for leadership in life.

I have to point out that Elon’s “athletic peers” include a school that doesn’t play scholarship football (Davidson), a school that competes in the Atlantic 10 in all sports save football and women’s golf (Richmond), and a public school with quite a few more varsity sports than Elon (William and Mary).  I am not completely sure what Elon’s ultimate goal is for its athletics program, other than fully funding athletics scholarships in all sports, a benchmark expressly stated by the school.

I was listening to the SoCon media teleconference as Jason Swepson, Elon’s new head coach, started talking about the upcoming game.  Swepson spent the last four seasons at North Carolina State under Tom O’Brien, but prior to that he had been on O’Brien’s staff at Boston College, which is Swepson’s alma mater.  Swepson is a Massachusetts native, and four years in the south haven’t made a dent in his accent.

A question about defending the triple option was posed to him by Burlington Times News sportswriter Adam Smith.  Swepson noted that Elon had allocated ten minutes to defending the option for all of its preseason practices, and had also “tweaked” its weekly in-season practice schedule for this week to be better prepared for it. Swepson also mentioned that Phoenix defensive coordinator Ed Pinkham had experience with defending the triple option against Army and Navy while working at Colgate and Rutgers (Pinkham spent five years on staff total in New Brunswick, including serving as the co-DC for the last two seasons).

That got me thinking.  What kind of defense is Pinkham likely to employ against The Citadel?  Could he take a page from his days at Rutgers?

Rutgers beat Army in both 2009 and 2010, both triple option years for the Black Knights; Rutgers won easily, 27-10, in 2009, holding the Cadets to 213 total yards.  In the second meeting, Army outgained Rutgers in yardage by over 150 yards (404-250) but lost 23-20 in OT, thanks in part to two lost fumbles (in a game marred by Eric Legrand’s injury).

The Scarlet Knights last played Navy in 2007 and 2008.  Rutgers beat the Midshipmen 41-24 in the first meeting, which won’t go down as one of Rutgers’ best moments. Navy rushed for 254 yards but passed for only 35, and had three of those throws intercepted.  In 2008, however, the Middies amassed 289 yards rushing, a further 89 passing (including a TD), and did not turn the ball over, leading to a 23-21 Navy win.

I decided to consult The Birddog, who as I have mentioned before is the world’s leading Navy football blogger and a noted devotee of the triple option.  What kind of scheme did Rutgers run against Navy’s attack?

Via tweet, he replied that “Main takeaway from Rutgers is that they like playing cover 3 w/FS taking the pitch.”

Now, I don’t understand all the “x and o” stuff about the triple option, which is one of the few things I have in common with Craig James, but from what I gather, the free safety taking the pitch man might mean that occasionally running a play more to the middle of the field could be worthwhile.  Something like, say, the midline option.

That link to The Birddog’s site is a good primer on the midline, and includes two video examples of Navy running the midline against Rutgers.  Video from the same game is also on his review of that (2008) contest:  Link

Another team that ran a similar defensive scheme was Georgia, against Georgia Tech in 2009.  It didn’t work real well.  One other thing about this particular defensive scheme is that one way to combat it is the ol’ play-action pass.  I am guessing that would be a call Kevin Higgins would be more than willing to make.

Now, I don’t know if Elon is going to run a similar defensive alignment against The Citadel.  The Phoenix might do something completely different, making all the above information meaningless.  On the other hand, I think the midline option is going to be something to watch as far as the Bulldogs’ offense is concerned anyway, whether against Elon or any other opponent.  One reason might be a certain coach now at The Citadel.  From that midline post:

Craig Candeto used to call the QB-FB midline his favorite play because he only had one read, and the DT tends to take the fullback most of the time.

Gee, I wonder what Craig Candeto is doing now.  Might he be mentoring a young quarterback?  Hmm…

Oh, one other thing:  The Birddog told me that Kansas ran a similar defensive look against Georgia Tech last week, as did Delaware against Navy three weeks ago. Combined rushing yardage for the Jackets and Midshipmen in those two games: 995.

As there can only be one Phoenix at any time, please refer to the Phoenix in the singular.

– Elon football game notes

Elon is 2-1 on the season, with victories over Division II Concord (42-10) and a new member of the MEAC, North Carolina Central (23-22).  The Phoenix lost its season opener 45-14 to Vanderbilt.

I don’t think the games against Concord and Vandy were too surprising (although it should be noted that the Phoenix actually had more total yards than the Commodores).  The contest with North Carolina Central shouldn’t have been, either. Elon, heavily favored, outgained its opponent 525-219 and had almost 15 more minutes of possession.  The Phoenix kept the Eagles in the game, though, by committing five turnovers; one of Elon’s three interceptions was returned 75 yards for a touchdown.

North Carolina Central had a chance to win the game late, but a field goal attempt went awry and Elon hung on for the victory.

I wish Elon had saved some of those turnovers for this week’s game…

Phoenix quarterback Thomas Wilson played, after some concern over whether he would be able to do so, and threw for 416 yards (albeit with those three picks).  This is Wilson’s first season as the starter, following the seemingly never-ending career of Scott Riddle.  Wilson did have one previous start at Elon, though — the game last year against The Citadel.

Riddle was unable to play in that game due to injury, but Wilson more than held his own, leading a methodical attack.  He made no big mistakes and was particularly effective on third down (9-13) and in the “red zone” (Elon scored a TD on each of its four trips inside the 20; two of those TDs were one-yard rushes by Wilson).

Wilson’s primary target is wide receiver Aaron Mellette.  Mellette caught 16 passes last week, for 237 yards and a touchdown.  The Eagles had no answers for him, but they shouldn’t feel too badly about that, as Mellette posed tough questions for teams all last season (among other highlights, he had 18 receptions against Richmond).

Mellette was named first-team all-SoCon after last season.  He gets compared a lot to former Elon star Terrell Hudgins, which could be a bit unfair (Hudgins, a former high school quarterback, may have been a better athlete), but there’s no doubt he’s a threat on any play and must be accounted for by the Bulldogs at all times.  In last year’s game, Mellette was held to just three catches, one of the few positives for the Bulldogs’ D.

Elon is averaging 130 yards per game rushing, but that number is inflated by a 199-yard performance against Concord.  The Phoenix rushing attack may have taken a hit with an injury to 6’4″, 311-lb. senior right guard Rodney Austin, who broke his foot last week and will be out for at least two months.  Austin was a preseason second-team all-SoCon selection.

The Phoenix is one for three in field goal attempts this season, after only making eight of fifteen last year.  However, placekicker Adam Shreiner was a perfect 45-45 in PATs last year and that streak has continued this season (10-10).

On defense, players to watch for Elon include middle linebacker Joshua Jones, a preseason second-team all-SoCon pick who leads the Phoenix in tackles, and free safety Blake Thompson, who had eleven tackles last year against The Citadel.  As noted above, Thompson may be a key man as Elon battles against Triple O’Higgins. Jones and Thompson are responsible for over one-quarter of the Phoenix’s tackles for loss.

Elon’s defensive line is not particularly large, with three of the starters weighing less than 250 lbs., but noseguard Tony Thompson checks in at 270 lbs. and already has two sacks this season.  A backup of interest is David Wood, who played baseball for Elon the last two seasons and is now a reserve defensive back on the football team (Wood is also a kick and punt returner).

Fashion alert:  The Citadel’s game notes this week indicate the Bulldogs will wear white jerseys and white pants at Elon.

I don’t think there are any secrets as to what The Citadel needs to do this week. Avoiding turnovers, as always, is a must.  So far this year the Bulldogs have been okay in that respect, though there are still too many fumbles.

When a big play is out there for the offense, it must take full advantage.  That didn’t happen against Furman, and the Bulldogs paid for it.

The defense needs to get off the field on third down, something it repeatedly failed to do against Elon last season.  The D also needs to force some turnovers and sack the quarterback a time or two, or six.  Jeremy Buncum has three tackles for loss this season, leading the team.  The Citadel needs more of those types of plays.

Based on early reports, there may be a very good crowd at Rhodes Stadium on Saturday, which is good (nothing worse than a dead atmosphere, at home or on the road).  The last time The Citadel played at Elon, the Bulldogs lost 43-7 in a miserable performance, one of a number of less-than-stellar road outings in recent years.  The Citadel has lost 15 of its last 17 road contests, although it is riding a one-game winning streak away from Johnson Hagood Stadium (last season’s finale at Samford).

It would be nice to add to the road winning streak on Saturday.

Game Review, 2011: Furman

Furman 16, The Citadel 6.

It wasn’t a terrible performance by the Bulldogs.  It just wasn’t good enough.  I wasn’t completely frustrated by the way things turned out, but I wasn’t overwhelmed with positive vibes either.

Links of interest:

Jeff Hartsell’s article on the game

Hartsell’s post-game notes

The Citadel’s release

Furman’s release

The Post and Courier‘s “photo gallery” of the game

Click on that last link to see photos of the Bulldogs wearing their “Big Red” jerseys.  I was disappointed with the decision to break out these uniforms for the game. This was supposed to be a special, unusual uniform set designed to commemorate the return of “Big Red” (the flag) to The Citadel.

I wrote about these uniforms last year when they were first worn, for Homecoming. What I said then:

I didn’t have a problem with breaking out the red jerseys for this game.  The original Big Red, of course, arrived on campus in March; its disappearance and rediscovery is an interesting tale.  Wearing red jerseys for the Homecoming following that development seemed reasonably appropriate (and a good way to push merchandise).

I’m not sure I would want to see them again, however.  I certainly don’t want the football team wearing red jerseys to become a yearly event.  I think doing that would make it much less special, and also detract from the school’s traditional colors for its sports teams.

Of course, it could be argued that the parade of different football uniform color combinations this season has already devalued the tradition of wearing light blue and white. In ten games, the Bulldogs have worn six different jersey/pant color combos, including four different looks for the six home games.

In fact, I think the fact The Citadel did not have a standard uniform combination this season made the red jerseys seem a little less unusual. Let’s face it, if the Bulldogs had lined up wearing silver or black, nobody would have been all that shocked, so the red jersey wasn’t that much of a departure.

I still feel that way.  If anything, I feel more strongly about it after seeing the game against Jacksonville, when the Bulldogs wore a new uniform that actually looked pretty good.  I am afraid that we are going to continue this multiple uniform combo deal throughout the season.  I also wouldn’t be all that surprised if someone in the department of athletics is trying to figure out how to justify wearing black or silver jerseys/pants/helmets.

I’ll get off my uniform soapbox for now, because I know folks are probably tired of the constant drumbeat about the unis (or at least tired of my constant drumbeat), but I want to make three more points:

— The Bulldogs wore the new helmet logo with this “Big Red” set, which made it look even weirder (and which was obviously inconsistent with the uniform as a whole).

— The game notes now actually feature a chart listing The Citadel’s uniform combinations for each contest.  While it is arguably sad that such a chart is necessary, I will give the media relations staff credit for it, because I think it’s a good idea.  The problem, of course, was that the notes for the Furman game listed the uniform combo as being “Citadel blue tops, white bottoms”.  I guess not everybody got the message.

— The light blue “side panels” on the red jerseys look even worse when compared to the no-panel look of last week’s jerseys.

I’m not going to rehash the game.  I’ll just make some observations, many of which are probably faulty…

— On The Citadel’s first drive to open the game, the Bulldogs threw two passes (both incomplete) in three plays and punted.  I know that the element of surprise is always a consideration, and that Triple O’Higgins probably features more passing than some other triple option offenses, but I would have liked to see the team try to establish an offensive rhythm early by sticking to the ground game.

— This game could have looked a lot like last year’s matchup in Greenville, when Furman scored a TD right out of the gate and the Bulldogs played from well behind for the entire day, but for a big play by Brandon McCladdie on third-and-goal from the Bulldogs 4-yard line.  Chris Forcier would have scored if McCladdie had not kept containment and made what amounted to an open-field tackle.  If The Citadel had come back and won the game, McCladdie’s play would have been huge.  It was still noteworthy.

— Furman’s coaches treated Forcier more like a freshman than a senior in terms of play-calling.  I’m not sure what to make of that.

— Jerodis Williams is a tough back.  Very impressive.  I also thought Paladins linebacker Kadarron Anderson had a good game.

— Things that are still a work in progress:  Ben Dupree’s passing, and the Bulldogs’ o-line play in general.  Both can improve, though.  I’ll take some overthrows and missed blocks now for pinpoint passing and solid line play later.

— Dupree is going to frustrate a lot of SoCon opponents with his ability to turn broken plays into positive yardage.

— On The Citadel’s sixth drive of the game, the Bulldogs chewed up just over seven minutes of possession, eventually facing a 4th-and-8 on the Paladins 35-yard line. The Citadel took a delay of game penalty and then punted.  The punt went into the end zone for a touchback, so the net was 20 yards (a de facto 15-yard net, really, considering the penalty).

I think Kevin Higgins, if he had to do it all over again, would have gone for it.  I certainly believe he should have.  The Bulldogs trailed 13-6 at the time, and there were four minutes remaining in the third quarter.

In that situation, if a field goal attempt isn’t a realistic option, going for it is the right move.  In fact, I think it’s the right move in most situations, but you definitely have to go for it in a game when the possessions are limited.  The Citadel only had eight possessions in the entire contest (and one of those was a one-play drive to end the first half, so the Bulldogs in effect only got the ball seven times).

You simply aren’t going to get that many opportunities to make a play in your opponents’ territory.  Higgins did make the correct decision on The Citadel’s next possession, however, going for it on 4th-and-6 at the Furman 49.  It didn’t work out, but it was the right call.

— The tailgaters were out in force on Saturday.  Larry Leckonby probably spends a fair amount of time wondering how to get most of the people tailgating in the lots surrounding the stadium to actually enter the stadium.  It’s a problem.

Now The Citadel has a week off before its first road game of the season, a trip to Elon. The Phoenix are playing this weekend, as they travel to Durham to face North Carolina Central.  Elon is 1-1, with a loss to Vanderbilt and a victory over Concord.

I’ll close with some photos.  My usual lack of skill in picture-taking was combined on Saturday with a dying battery in my camera, so I didn’t take quite as many as usual.  I did get a few off-field shots of note, though, including the 1961 SoCon championship trophy and the mascot for Bojangles, apparently named “Bo” (what a surprise).

Speaking of mascots, I got a picture of General too, relaxing on a block of ice covered by a blanket.  General is a very cool dog (quite literally on Saturday, despite the late-afternoon heat).  He and his buddy Boo made a lot of new friends, including quite a few Cub Scouts.  I also appreciated Boo’s handler moving the SoCon trophy around so I could get a half-decent shot of it.  Many thanks.

2011 Football, Game 2: The Citadel vs. Furman

The Citadel vs. Furman, to be played at historic Johnson Hagood Stadium, with kickoff at 6:00 pm ET on Saturday, September 10.  The game will be televised on WYMA (Asheville, NC), and will be available on ESPN3.com.  There will also be a webcast on Bulldog Insider (subscription service), and the game can be heard on radio via The Citadel Sports Network, with new “Voice of the Bulldogs” Danny Reed calling the action.

The Citadel begins play in the Southern Conference with a game against traditional rival Furman.  It’s only the third time the two schools have ever met in a league opener, but it’s the second consecutive season that has been the case.

I’m not going to rehash the history of the series in terms of the time of year the game has been held; anyone interested can read what I wrote on the subject for last year’s game preview.  Regardless of whether you think the game should be a midseason clash (my preference) or played at the end of the year (a not-insignificant number of fans from both schools), I think everyone can agree that September 10 is too early for this game to be played.

Jeff Hartsell has reported that, per the SoCon office, next year’s meeting will come at the end of the 2012 season, on November 17.  (The conference does not make league schedules beyond one year in advance.)

I’m okay with that, as long as the Clemson-South Carolina game continues to be played the Saturday after Thanksgiving, as is now the case.  I just don’t want The Citadel and Furman to play on the same day as the matchup between the Tigers and Gamecocks.

Furman was 5-6 last season, its first losing campaign since 1998.  Bobby Lamb resigned after nine years in charge and over a quarter-century at the school as a player or coach.  The Paladins had missed the FCS playoffs for four consecutive seasons, which did not go over well among some supporters.  It was time for Furman to make a change.

The question, though, is did Furman really make a change?

The new coach is Bruce Fowler.  Fowler is a 1981 graduate of Furman who played for Dick Sheridan.  Lamb was a 1986 graduate of FU who had played for Sheridan. Fowler spent 18 years at Furman as an assistant coach.  Lamb had been an assistant coach at Furman for 16 seasons.

One difference is that Fowler wasn’t a complete Furman lifer like Lamb had been.  For the past nine years, he had been an assistant at Vanderbilt, where he was defensive coordinator for Bobby Johnson (and Robbie Caldwell in 2010).  Of course, Johnson had been the head coach at Furman before taking the Vandy job, and before that he had been an assistant under Dick Sheridan.

You may have noticed a pattern here.  Dick Sheridan left Furman after the 1985 season to take over at N.C. State, but his presence is still felt in the program.  All four of the men who have held the head coaching position since Sheridan left (including Fowler) were players and/or assistants under him.

If you were going to have your football program maintain what is in effect a 25-year tie to a former coach, you could do much worse than Sheridan, who did nothing but win throughout his coaching career (even as a 28-year-old rookie head coach at an Orangeburg high school).  It’s a type of continuity that may be worth preserving.

On the other hand, there is always the possibility that Furman risks going to the well once too often.  Fowler isn’t exactly a carbon copy of Lamb, though — for one thing, he’s 52 years old, 13 years older than Lamb was when Lamb got the job.  Also, he’s primarily a defensive coach (though he was the receivers coach at FU for seven seasons).  Lamb was mostly an offensive coach (and a former quarterback) during his time with the Paladins.

Usually when a school is in a position to make a coaching change after a run of disappointing seasons, it brings in somebody to shake things up.  That’s certainly not what Furman has done.  Besides Fowler, three of the assistant coaches played for Sheridan; another has been a Paladins assistant for 13 years.

Before I move on to the Paladins of 2011, I should note that Art Baker, who preceded Sheridan as head coach at Furman (eventually leaving to take the job at The Citadel), hired Sheridan, Jimmy Satterfield, and Bobby Johnson as assistant coaches, all of whom would later ascend to the top job at FU.  Baker had a significant impact on Furman’s coaching tree.

Furman lost 30-23 at Coastal Carolina in its opener.  The Paladins never led the contest.  The game had been tied at 16 and 23 before the Chanticleers scored the game-winning touchdown with 1:23 remaining in the fourth quarter.

Coastal Carolina gained 231 yards rushing and 195 yards passing against the Furman defense, but perhaps more interesting was that the Chanticleers had 59 rushing attempts for the game.  CCU ran 81 offensive plays from scrimmage for the game, while the Paladins had just 58.

As Bruce Fowler noted in the SoCon teleconference, Furman had trouble getting its defense off the field.  Coastal was 7-16 on 3rd-down conversion attempts and made its only 4th-down try, a major reason the Paladins trailed by over 12 minutes in time of possession.  That continued a trend from last season, when Furman finished last in the SoCon in time of possession.

The Paladins do have two impact players on defense, middle linebacker Kadarron Anderson and cornerback Ryan Steed, both of whom are on the Buck Buchanan Watch List.  Another linebacker, Chris Wiley, had fourteen tackles against Coastal Carolina.  Furman defensive end Josh Lynn is tall (6’5″) and rangy, and may be a key factor in how the Bulldogs’ triple action attack fares on Saturday.  Against Coastal, he had five tackles and a sack.

Furman’s starting quarterback against Coastal Carolina was Chris Forcier, of the Forcier Family of Quarterbacks.  I think it’s fair to say that the Forciers are, as a group, somewhat controversial.  I guess it’s a question of style.  When Chris Forcier decided to transfer from UCLA to Furman, the family issued a press release that wound up being posted on Deadspin.

His brother Tate is a former Michigan quarterback who has now transferred to San Jose State (after originally announcing he was going to Miami).  His oldest brother, Jason, also played quarterback at Michigan before transferring to Stanford.  The brothers also transferred to different high schools at various times.

Against the Chants, Forcier was solid, completing two-thirds of his passes while averaging over seven yards per attempt.  A classic “dual threat” quarterback, Forcier also rushed for 50 yards before leaving the game in the third quarter, apparently suffering from cramps.  Without him, the Furman offense sputtered, not scoring in the fourth quarter.

Assuming he is healthy (and there is no reason to believe otherwise), stopping Forcier will be a difficult task for The Citadel’s defense.

If dealing with Forcier wasn’t enough, the Bulldogs must also contend with Jerodis Williams, who rushed for 142 yards and 3 touchdowns against Coastal (including a 68-yard score).  Williams was the Southern Conference offensive player of the week, and also picked up FCS National Back of the Week honors from something called the “College Football Performance Awards“.

Furman had five different receivers catch passes against the Chanticleers (including Williams).  Tyler Maples had five receptions for 65 yards.  Colin Anderson had four catches, and presumably will have a career day against The Citadel, as has often been the case for Furman tight ends.

Along the offensive line, Furman has experienced and well-regarded tackles (one of whom, Ryan Lee, is moving from guard to tackle) and a veteran center, Daniel Spisak (who is Matt Millen’s nephew).  The guards include a first-year starter who came to Furman as a walk-on, and a sophomore who started three times last season before a season-ending foot injury.

Furman placekicker Ray Early was 11-12 on field goal attempts last season, including a long of 52 yards, and only missed one extra point all year (40-41).  Against Coastal Carolina, however, Early’s first field goal attempt of the season was blocked, and he then missed the PAT after the Paladins’ first touchdown.

After that, Early did not attempt a placekick in the game (although he did kick off), giving way to Furman punter Chas Short.  That may be something to watch on Saturday.

Short, incidentally, had a fine year for Furman in 2010.  The Paladins finished in the top 10 nationally in net punting.

With Furman having allowed a bunch of rushing yards to Coastal Carolina, and having lost the time of possession battle so decisively, there may be some hope among Bulldog fans that the Paladins’ defensive issues could play into The Citadel’s hands on Saturday.  As Jeff Hartsell wrote in The Post and Courier:

…on defense, the Paladins’ 4-3 look was blitzed for 237 rushing yards, including 105 yards and two TDs by CCU quarterbacks Aramis Hillary and Jamie Childers. That might bode well for the Bulldogs’ option attack, as QB Ben Dupree went for 141 yards and two scores in a 31-9 win over Jacksonville. Higgins said Dupree was 23 for 23 on his option reads, and The Citadel rushed for 439 yards, the most since 1994.

That does seem promising from The Citadel’s perspective.  I would make this observation, though:

The Bulldogs ran the ball well on Furman last year, dominated time of possession, and lost 31-14.  The Citadel gained 294 net yards rushing on 60 attempts, held the ball for over 36 minutes — and did not score until the fourth quarter.

Actually, The Citadel’s 359 total yards against Furman in 2010 was the most yardage gained by the Bulldogs in any Southern Conference game for the entire season.  The problem?  Three turnovers, a missed field goal, and a failed fourth-down try inside the Furman 25.  Another issue was that The Citadel started very slowly on offense, gaining only 64 total yards on its first five possessions.

Conversely, Furman got out of the blocks fast on offense in each half, scoring touchdowns on its initial drive in both the first and third quarters.  Of the Paladins’ other three scores against The Citadel, two came on drives starting in Bulldog territory after an interception and a failed onside kick.

Kevin Higgins has said in the past that sometimes it takes a triple option team a possession or two to figure out how the defense is playing.  That makes sense.  You could see it in last week’s game against Jacksonville, as the game was well into the second quarter until Triple O’Higgins got fully warmed up.

Against a SoCon opponent, though, it needs to warm up faster.  The Bulldogs can’t go an entire quarter with no offensive production, especially as running the offense generally means there are fewer possessions in the game.  Also, while obvious, The Citadel must control its fumbling problems, which cropped up against Jacksonville (albeit with only one coming on an exchange) and stay “on schedule”.

The other thing that can’t happen Saturday if The Citadel has any chance of winning is for the defense to concede relatively easy touchdown drives right out of the dressing room.  Last season, Furman’s TD drives in each half were for a total of 123 yards and featured only two third-down plays.

What the defense really needs is to force some turnovers.  Last year against Furman, the Bulldogs forced no turnovers and also did not record a sack.

The Bulldogs must also contain Forcier, who is capable of making big plays with his arm or his feet, and prevent Williams from breaking long runs, such as the one he had against Coastal Carolina.  (Also, the defense must watch the tight end.  He’ll be catching the ball over the middle for 15 yards before you know it.  Two or three times.)

I thought Ben Dupree played well against Jacksonville.  What he proved, beyond a shadow of a doubt, is that he has the ability to make big plays.  While the triple option is mostly about moving the chains, it’s important to have a breakaway aspect to the offense, and Dupree can provide that with his running ability.  He is still a work in progress as a passer.  If he continues to improve that part of his game, he will be a very dangerous weapon indeed.

Terrell Dallas’ injury against the Dolphins was not serious, thankfully, but it appears he may not play on Saturday.  That will be a loss, but Darien Robinson showed he is quite capable of handling the fullback position.

I thought the defense really came to play against Jacksonville.  Now it faces another challenge.  It won’t have the size and depth advantage against Furman that it had against the Dolphins.

Odds and ends:

— Check out the game notes to see all the different helmet logos The Citadel has had over the years (page 5).  There have been no fewer than 25 different designs since 1952 (and I think it’s likely there have been a few more that went unrecorded).

Those artist renderings/photos in the game notes came from the Helmet Archive, a good site if you want to peruse helmet histories of other teams as well.

— Has anyone else noticed that there are a lot of entities giving out “player of the week” awards these days?  It’s hard to figure out which ones to take seriously.  I can’t decide if the plethora of “recognition sites” is a boon or a curse for athletic media relations departments.

— The Summerall Guards are performing at halftime, but not at Johnson Hagood Stadium.  The Guards will be in Death Valley for the Wofford-Clemson game (it is Military Appreciation Day at Clemson).  It strikes me as a little odd that they would perform at another stadium on the same day as a home football game, but no big deal.

I’m looking forward to the game.  I am hopeful that the success of the home opener, along with Saturday’s opponent, results in a nice crowd at JHS.  As for the on-field action, I’m not quite sure what to expect.  I was pleasantly surprised by what I saw against Jacksonville.  I would like to be pleasantly surprised again.