SOCON Review: Week 1

The Citadel 24  Mercer 23
The #13 Bulldogs of The Citadel had great expectations following a successful 2015 campaign. Mercer did as well after coming oh so close to winning many SOCON games last year and actually knocking off SOCON co-champ UTC. Broadcast on Fox Sport SE, the game was the season and SOCON opener for both teams. After the first 2 minutes, the casual viewer might have thought it was over as The Citadel was up 14-0 following a 2 play drive which ended with a 70 yard TD dash by preseason all American candidate Tyler Renew and a sack of the Mercer QB and forced fumble recovered by the Bulldogs sophomore defensive lineman Kevin Graham. This was quickly followed up with an 8 yards TD run by Cam Jackson. But Mercer, led by Senior QB John Russ, fought back with a long drive which resulted in a 26 yard FG. Another TD drive by the Bulldogs for 75 yards made it 21-3 at 5:46 to go in the 1st. Mercer then scored 20 unanswered points to go ahead early in the 3rd, 23-21.

Defense on both sides stiffened in the second half. At 13:30 to go in the game, The Citadel started a 7 minute clock killing drive which resulted in a 35 yard FG which would prove to be the game winning score. Mercer held the Dogs to 262 yards rushing which was well below their 2015 average output of 347. The Bulldogs started redshirt freshman Jordan Black after veteran Jr QB Dominique Allen was injured in camp and suspended for the first game in any event. Whether he returns against Furman next week is still TBD. Black, a lefty, went 6-9 and 79 yards passing which is about normal for the Dogs. Tyler Renew, the Dogs premier FB, finished with 146 yards on 27 runs. Mercer’s John Russ looked poised and went a respectable 15-25-1 for 172 yards. Mercer’s diminutive running back Payton Usher looked very good with 89 yards on 10 attempts. The loss for Mercer was the third in a row at hands of the Bulldogs…losing by a combined total of 5 points for all three games.

Samford 77  Mars Hill 7
The inconsistency which marked Samford’s 2015 season may be gone. Many, including coach Chris Hatcher, had higher expectations last year which saw the Bulldogs go 3-4 in SOCON play. Opening 2016 with a Div II Mars Hill may be just what was needed. The Samford offense racked up 573 yards including 352 yards through the air as QB Devlin Hodges went 39/49 with 5 TDs. The Bulldogs rushers added 221 yards. Their D held the Mars Hill Lions to 136 total yards. Picked to finish 3rd in the SOCON by the coaches and 5th by the media, conventional wisdom says they may be a “semi” dark horse to make a run for the conference title. The talent appears to be there, but whether they can make it work will be quickly evident over the next three weeks as Samford travels to Central Arkansas for a quality OOC game and UTC for a early, critical conference game, with a bye week wedged between.

Chattanooga 66  Shorter 0
The #6 team made short work work of Div II Shorter scoring on 7 of their 8 first half possessions to secure a 45-0 half time score. The Mocs new starting QB, Alejandro Bennifield went 8/11, 135 yards with 4 TDs and 1 int. Although the outclassed Shorter Hawks were devastated with injuries to their starters, the Mocs defense was impressive holding them to just 16 yards of total offense. While getting some good reps in this scrimmage, the Mocs were forced into this game after Austin Peay backed out of the schedule. With an expected loss later on at Alabama, the Mocs need to go 7-2 in their other remaining games or win the SOCON bid to ensure playoff spot. Doesn’t look like that may be a problem, but in the SOCON, anything can happen.

Wofford 21  Tennessee Tech 7
Wofford traveled to Cookeville, Tenn. to meet the Golden Eagles of Tennessee Tech with Jr. Brad Butler calling the signals. Butler got the starting nod after the Terriers lost Sr QB Evan Jacks to injured earlier in camp. The Terriers have been playing musical QBs for a while now and this may settle things down a bit. Wofford took the game last year 34-14 in Spartanburg with an impressive offensive output of 560 yards. Tenn Tech thought they could take charge early and began the game with a gutsy onside kick, which they recovered, but the drive stalled out. After exchanging possessions, Tenn Tech scored first on a Kip Patton 4 yard run, but that was all the points the Golden Eagles could muster. Butler knotted it at 7 mid way through the 2nd on a 10 yard TD run for Wofford. The rest of the first half was dotted with punts and 2 missed FGs by Wofford including a 41 yard attempt and a 62 yard attempt to end the half. The second half saw Wofford take control with long TD drives in both quarters. TTU had two long drives which totaled about 11 minutes combined, but resulted in 2 missed FGs and their last drive ended in an interception with under 5 minutes to go. The real story of the second half was the scare that everyone had midway through the third when one of Wofford’s players collapsed while on the bench. Initial information had EMS performing CPR and both teams were understandably concerned and prayerful. The outstanding news is that Wofford linebacker Michael Roach is apparently in good condition now. His long term situation will have to be determined, but at least he has a long term situation. Wofford finished with 346 on the ground in line with their option attack. They went 5/8 in the air with 42 yards which is about par for them. Their D held Tenn Tech to 41 yards on the ground and 216 through the air. With Ole Miss, Div II JC Smith, and ETSU up next, we may not get a good feel for how Wofford will compete in the SOCON until they meet Samford the first week of October.

Michigan State 28  Furman 13
Now we can confirm the reason the Big Ten does not want to schedule any more FCS teams. It’s because they almost get beat by them. Well it was close anyway. Too close for the #12 FBS team in the nation, especially against a team picked to finish in the bottom third of the SOCON in both the Coaches and Media polls. But Furman may be the real Dark Horse of the SOCON this year. Furman’s Jr QB P.J. Blazejowski led the Paladin offense and went 15/30, 123 yards passing against a pretty good Spartan D. But his one interception was extremely untimely, thrown one play after the Paladins intercepted the Spartans early in the fourth with Furman only down by 8 at that point. But the real story was the Paladin D which held the Spartans to 361 total yards, under their 2015 per game output of 386. Whether this was case of Michigan State underestimating their opponent or Furman putting it together finally is yet to be determined. That may become clearer next week as Furman travels to Charleston to meet The Citadel Bulldogs.

East Carolina 52  Western Carolina 7
The biggest question facing WCU this season was how they would fare with a new QB to replace the highly successful Troy Mitchell. The opening drive executed by WCU’s RS freshman QB Tyrie Adams was impressive with 67 yards in 11 plays where he went 7 for 7 passing. Problem was that the last pass was completed to an ECU player at the ECU 4. But that isn’t really fair since it was a freak deflection and tip drill. But the damage may have been done. The next three ECU drives resulted in 3 scores. The next three WCU drives ended in punts. Overall, Adams went 12/24 and 167 yards and added 51 on the ground. Not too bad considering it was his first collegiate start, on the road at an FBS opponent. WCU racked up a respectable 320 yards of balanced offense but couldn’t seem to cross the goal line when needed. Unfortunately WCU’s defense gave up 688 yards including 413 and 5 TDs through the air for ECU. WCU’s defense also gave up 11 plays of 20+ yards. While WCU may have found a QB, they seemed to have some issues on defense, FBS opponent or not. This has to improve if they have any hope of making a run at the SOCON title.

Akron 47  VMI 24
It looked as though the VMI Keydets might be in a position to pull off the upset as they trailed 24-26 at the end of the 3rd qtr. But the Akron Zips poured it on in the 4th with three TDs and halted the VMI offense led by Al Cobb. The Sr VMI QB went 25/32 for 258 yards during the game. But more importantly, he threw 0 interceptions. Cobb is by most accounts the best throwing QB in the SOCON but tossing INTs has been his Achilles heal the last couple years. If he has gotten the turnover bug under control, expect VMI to make some noise even if their running game was anemic at just 86 yards for the night. On the debit side, the VMI defense gave up 576 yards and just looked tuckered out by the 4th. For the record books, VMI wide receiver Aaron Sanders set a school record for career receptions at 167.

ETSU 20  Kennesaw St 17
In 2015 ETSU went 2-9 and 0-7 against Div I teams including losing to Kennesaw St 56-16 in the opening game for both teams. ETSU, in a temporary hiatus from 2003-2014, was a 28 point underdog in this game. Up 10-7 after 3 quarters, ETSU gave up a long drive resulting in an early 4th quarter FG by KSU to tie things up. Unable to move it the ball ETSU had to punt it back to KSU only to get a gift fumble late in the 4th which sent the game into OT. Once in OT ETSU wasted no time and scored a TD in three plays. When KSU tied it up again, and then missed a 30 yard FG in the second OT, ETSU sealed the deal with a 24 yard FG to get their first win over a Div I school since their resurrection. So maybe things are not as bad as everyone thought in Johnson City. Well, they did punt 9 times. But their D did hold Kennesaw St to just 166 yards rushing. Doesn’t sound great except when you consider that KSU averaged 293 yds/game last year, good enough for #6 in all of FCS. That may bode well for them in the rush heavy SOCON. ETSU’s RS Sophomore QB Austin Herink went 18/26 for 214 yards through the air. ETSU gets two weeks to relish this win before they make history, of a sort, on 17 Sept when they open SOCON play against Western Carolina at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Written by 

Born and raised in New Jersey, but gravitated south to graduate from The Citadel in 1985. Served 23+ years in the USAF retiring in 2008 as a Field Grade Officer. Logged 4600+ flying hours as an Aircraft Commander and Instructor Pilot in the KC135. After retiring from active duty, worked as a Program Manager on various Air Force weapon systems. Retired completely as of May 2016. I have followed SOCON football since my days as a cadet. I like statistics, but also find value in looking at the intangibles as well, such as a team's emotions and motivation.

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