SOCON Week 9 Review

Citadel 21 VMI 3

The Citadel Bulldogs kept the Silver Shako for another year after a strong win against a still-winless VMI team.  The Bulldogs won their second straight game of the season to improve their record to 5-3.  The Citadel ran for over 400 yards against the Keydets and out-gained them 421 to 219.  The Citadel run defense remained one of the strongest in the conference, holding VMI to 72 yards on 32 carries.  The one blemish for the Bulldogs was that they missed 4 field goals inside 40 yards. The Citadel offense, which has been stung by three and outs all season only had two on the day. Meanwhile, VMI was only able to get into the redzone once on their opening drive, being held to less than 3.5 yards a play.

The Bulldogs may not make the playoffs this year, but now they are playing for pride.  The difference between this year’s Citadel team and last year’s team is matter of efficiency on offense.  Ill-timed fumbles, missed field goals and a bad first quarter against Samford appear to be the difference between this team being competitive for a playoff spot and competing for a respectable 7-4 rating.  The Bulldog defense is still one of the best in the conference, still leading in rush defense.  The offense has proven it can grind the clock and slow the pace of play at times, which is an equalizer against any opponent. Still, the option attack for the Citadel hasn’t proven its ability to score more than 20 or so points a game and has only scored 30 once against Socon competition.  The Bulldogs are young on offense, replacing a lot of talent on a team that went undefeated in conference play last year, so some drop off is expected. Having said that, it’s unwise to underestimate the potential of a young and talented team coached by a man who didn’t lose a conference game until his second year. The next two games against Western Carolina and Furman will be difficult for the Bulldogs, but not impossible to win. 

Meanwhile, VMI may not win a game this year, having not scored 20 points against any division one opponent. There’s not much nuance to it: they just can’t score points reliably. Their defense is probably better than the statistics show, but you can’t expect a defense on any team to carry it if the offense can’t reliable score 20 points a game. The Keydets go to Johnson City, Tennessee next week to play ETSU, a squad they walloped last year, but the two programs seem to be heading in opposite directions.  ETSU is clearly better this year than last year, by virtue of their offensive output, while VMI is clearly worse by the same measure.

Furman 28 Western Carolina 6

A torrential downpour welcomed Furman to Cullowhee, North Carolina for Western Carolina’s homecoming.  An early injury to Western Carolina’s star Quarterback Tyrie Adams set back the Catamount offense in a way they couldn’t overcome.  In an old-fashioned slobberknocker of a football game, Furman ran the ball 55 times for 363 yards and only completed two passes for 60 yards (they threw only five times) and a touchdown in route to a 28-6 victory.  Western Carolina was still able to run the ball for 241 yards on 53 carries and 107 yards passing on 14 completions.  

It’s unclear how this game would have turned out had the weather been better or had Adams played the whole game, but Adams doesn’t play defense.  Going into the game, Western Carolina had given up 4.2 yards per carry on defense, which is a bad sign considering the only quality running team they had played was Wofford (Davidson, ETSU, Chattanooga, VMI and Samford are not known for their run game).  The strength of Western’s defense has been pass defense, being the only team in the conference to hold opposing QBs to below 50% completions (a phenomenal number when you consider they’ve played the best passing teams in the conference).  Furman just didn’t need to throw the ball. Though Catamount fans may always question what could have been and their defense has certainly improved this year, run defense is what’s preventing them from taking the next step into being a title contender.  Going forward, the Catamounts risk not making the playoffs without Adams.  They need to find an offense without him next week against the Citadel to hope to make the playoffs.

This game reiterated that Furman’s offense is one of the best in the country due to their ability to run the ball and the arm strength of QB P.J. Blazejowski.   Furman controls their own destiny when it comes to winning a share of the Socon. What sets Furman apart from other teams in the conference is their balance and consistency on offense. No matter the opponent, Furman’s offense will score about 50% of the possessions they have. So long as their offense scores at that rate, it’s unlikely that any team will beat them in conference play. They still have to play two formidable defenses in Samford and the Citadel, but they should be favored in those games given their performance thus far. It’s hard to gauge their defense because they get the job done, but in different and inconsistent ways (even without Adams, shutting down Western’s offense is impressive, yet at the same time they let ETSU pass for 400 yards against them). Though they should be favored in their next two games, it will be interesting to see how Furman plays both.  Wofford was able to wear down the young and injured Furman defense in the fourth quarter, and the Citadel is the most comparable team to Wofford in the conference.  Yet still, the Paladins will have a week to prepare. With Samford, Furman will probably enter the game with a pass defense near the bottom of the conference, while Samford has a somewhat vulnerable run defense.  It’s hard to gauge how either game will go, but it’s certain that Furman will have earned equal share of the conference title if they win both.

Chattanooga 23 Samford 21

In perhaps the biggest upset of the season, Chattanooga got their first win against a ranked opponent on the road in over 30 years.  The Samford Bulldogs, hot after a 24-21 win on the road at Wofford last week, turned the ball over 7 times including a key fumble inside Chattanooga territory, up 1, with about 2:20 seconds left in the game. Chattanooga had its fair share of turnovers as well, with four, but the Mocs ultimately prevailed on a 39-yard field goal with less than 20 seconds left to take the lead 23-21. For the second straight week, Samford failed to establish any semblance of a run game, rushing for 34 yards on 27 attempts, with the most of those yards coming from a 16 yard scramble by Devlin Hodges in the fourth quarter. Hodges managed to complete 60% of his passes for 333 yards, but could not overcome 3 interceptions.

The Chattanooga offense has struggled all season but has improved steadily under freshman QB Cole Copeland. The Mocs offense has failed to score 20 points on anyone but winless VMI, but in the past few weeks has improved to where they are in a position to win games in the fourth quarter.  Though the defense isn’t as statistically impressive as it was last year, it’s still a solid group with a strong pass defense and the ability to force turnovers and score on their own.  No doubt, the Mocs have found their rhythm and have the capability to win against Wofford and ETSU to close out the season.  If they can protect Copeland against a Wofford pass rush that’s been kind of quiet this year and avoid turnovers, it’s possible they’ll get their second straight road win against a top 10 team. 

For Samford, this marks the third straight year they’ve lost to a team with a losing record.  When the Bulldogs were playing at their best, they weren’t playing cute, throwing offensive lineman screens and double reverses on third and one, they were passing the ball effectively and running the ball well enough when they needed to. Devlin Hodges is probably the only quarterback in the conference who can beat any team by himself if the playcalling is good enough.  Though the playoffs are certainly within reach, the road gets a little harder and uncertain, as they have to play a resurgent ETSU, offensive juggernaut Furman, and defensive powerhouse Mercer. If they lose one of those games, it’s likely they’ll get left out of the playoffs; if they lose two, it’s almost certain they’ll be left out.

Wofford 31 ETSU 24

Wofford once again won a game that was close in the fourth quarter.  This time, the Terriers never lost the lead and at one time led by two scores in the fourth quarter (something that’s only happened once this year prior to this week).  ETSU once again showed improvement as a third-year program, with Junior Quarterback Austin Herinck passing 23 of 34 for 262 yards and two touchdowns.  In the first half, the Terriers ran wild for close to 300 yards of total offense, including more yards passing than ETSU, but only had 17 points to show for it. The difference in this game was in the trenches as Wofford was able to control the line of scrimmage, limiting ETSU to 15 yards rushing on 33 attempts and harassing Herinck into making mistakes. Last week, Samford proved you could beat Wofford through the air (no run game necessary), but unlike Samford, ETSU tries to establish a run game in every game. ETSU’s passing game was sufficient to keep the game competitive into the final minutes. The game was in doubt on the last possession as ETSU drove inside Wofford’s 30, but failed on a fourth down conversion attempt.

ETSU is a pleasant surprise this year and has all the markings of a team that’s developing into a legitimate FCS program.  Though they currently don’t have the talent on the line of scrimmage to be successful (they are low in the conference standing in run defense, sacks allowed and rushing offense) they have a quarterback that can sling the ball over the field and a strong kicker who kicks touchbacks on 2 of every 3 kickoffs.  They have problems winning on the road, but every game they’ve played at home has gone down to the wire against the Citadel (6 point loss), Wofford (7 point loss) and Mercer (overtime win). As soon as this team improves in the trenches they will be hard to beat. Next week they may not need it as they play a winless VMI team at home.  With games against offensively challenged opponents in Chattanooga and VMI, look out for the Bucs possibly ending the year on a win streak.

The win for Wofford puts them at 7-1 and 5-1 in Socon play.  Another win would likely clinch a playoff spot (arguably they’re in with 7 wins right now), while two wins in the next two weeks would clinch the Socon and a possible seed for the Terriers. Though this game was frustrating to watch from the Terrier’s side, and at this point the one-score wins are getting old for the Terrier faithful, this was the third game of the season the Terriers never trailed. Ill-timed three and outs in the third quarter forced by the ETSU defense, prevented the Terriers from putting the game away. The “ifs” and “buts” have piled up on the Terriers this year, in a season that’s spectacularly odd. Mistakes in games they’ve led have kept games close they should win easily, while mistake by other teams in games they’ve trailed (Furman, Mercer) have kept them in a position to win.  By that measure, they’re lucky to be 7-1, but by another they are statistically about the same as last year in all categories, except passing which has shown improvement and sacks which has declined this year. Next week, Chattanooga will be a different challenge for the Terriers as the Moc defense is clearly better than ETSU’s (by virtue of both the statistics and being a fully developed division one program), but Conner Copeland and the Chattanooga offense are an enigma at this point. The Terriers will be favored, but if the past is any indication of the future this game will be close.

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