Elon had cut a 25-point deficit to just seven with 8:49 to play when Citadel coach Kevin Higgins gathered his offense around him. A crowd of 14,853 at Johnson Hagood Stadium was nervous, feeling a homecoming win slipping away.

The Bulldogs’ offense had lost a fumble and punted three times on its last four possessions, including two three-and-outs. Another three-and-out could doom the Dogs, and their slim hopes for a playoff bid.

“Coach got his message across in no uncertain terms,” fullback Darien Robinson said. “He let us know, we had to establish ourselves on that drive.”

That the Bulldogs did.

Robinson ran nine times for 54 yards on perhaps the biggest drive of the football season for The Citadel, a 14-play, 75-yard march to seal a 38-24 victory over Elon.

The junior from McKeesport, Pa., scored the clinching touchdown on a 3-yard run with 2:33 left, giving him a career-best 178 yards on 20 carries.

“Darien is the heart and soul of our offense,” Higgins said after his team improved to 5-4 overall and 4-3 in the Southern Conference. “He did a great job of breaking tackles all game, and on that last drive he really came up big.”

Robinson was not the only Bulldog to come up big. Backup quarterback Aaron Miller, who led that final drive, ran for two touchdowns and passed for another, and starting QB Ben Dupree rushed for 100 yards and a 55-yard TD on 13 carries.

On defense, senior cornerback Brandon McCladdie covered Elon’s All-America receiver Aaron Mellette for the entire game. He picked off a pass and held Mellette to nine catches for 102 yards and no touchdowns, only the second time this season Mellette has failed to score.

Mellette, a 6-4, 220-pound senior, had been averaging 8.6 catches and 126 yards per game, with 15 touchdowns in eight games.

“I can’t say enough about the job Brandon did,” Higgins said. “He kept everything in front of him for the most part, and defended the ball really well.”

The win kept the Bulldogs in play for their second winning record in eight years under Higgins — they can clinch that goal with a win at VMI next week — and a possible playoff bid from an increasingly chaotic SoCon.

Upsets by Appalachian State over No. 1 Georgia Southern and Samford over No. 6 Wofford on Saturday left four teams with two league losses each. Georgia Southern finished SoCon play with a 6-2 mark, while Wofford (5-2) and App State (5-2) each have a league game left. Chattanooga (4-2) has two league games left, including a trip to Wofford next week.

That leaves six teams — those four plus Samford (6-3, 4-3) and The Citadel — chasing what will likely be three bids from the SoCon for the 20-team FCS playoffs.

“If we can win at VMI,” said Higgins, whose team closes the season Nov. 17 at Furman, “there could be an awful lot ahead for us.”

The Bulldogs needed only four plays to score against Elon (3-6, 1-5), on Dupree’s 55-yard TD scamper, and took a 24-6 lead at the half on Miller’s 51-yard Hail Mary pass to Matt Thompson at the buzzer.

Robinson’s 60-yard run set up Miller’s 3-yard TD for a 31-6 lead early in the third quarter, and it looked like the rout was on.

But as the Bulldogs’ offense sputtered, Elon rallied to within 31-24 on TD passes of 20 yards to Kierre Brown and 6 yards to Tracey Coppedge from quarterback Thomas Wilson, who was 37 of 50 for 351 yards.

That’s when The Citadel’s offense came through, taking 6:16 off the clock with the game-sealing drive.

“We wanted the ball in our hands,” Miller said. “We didn’t want to have to rely on a field goal. We wanted to control our own fate.”

Follow Jeff Hartsell on Twitter @Jeff_fromthePC