CULLOWHEE, N.C. — Citadel coach Kevin Higgins vowed this week to simplify his offense in order to help the Bulldogs win their first game of the football season.
The Citadel’s 28-21 victory at Western Carolina on Saturday, before 9,345 fans at E.J. Whitmire Stadium, was anything but simple, however.
The results of two botched punts swung the game the Bulldogs’ way, and victory was not certain until an Immaculate Interception of sorts in the final minutes.
With 2:12 left in the game, Bulldogs safety Julian Baxter picked off a pass that was deflected by teammate Brandon McCladdie and ricocheted off the knee of defensive tackle Derek Douglas.
The Citadel (1-2, 1-1 Southern Confernce) ran out the clock from there, getting its season back on track — at least for the moment.
“This is so good for our kids,” said Citadel coach Kevin Higgins, whose team had dropped its first two games, against Charleston Southern and Wofford. “They’ve worked so hard, and our leadership has been very good. They didn’t doubt themselves and got after it the entire game.”
Relying almost exclusively on the triple option, The Citadel rushed for 343 yards and built leads of 21-0 and 28-7 before Western Carolina (0-3, 0-1) could mount a comeback.
The Catamounts lost their 13th straight game and 29th in a row against Division I teams.
With backup Aaron Miller hobbled by a sore foot, quarterback Ben Dupree played the entire game and ran 28 times for 126 yards and two touchdowns. The Bulldogs got 86 yards from the fullback spot, 50 on 14 carries from Darien Robinson and 36 on six runs from Tyler Renew, making his college debut.
And the Bulldogs announced their intention to run with a 19-play drive to start the game, every play out of option formation and 18 of them runs.
“We got back to running the midline option,” said Dupree, who tried just six passes. “That’s been our bread-and- butter for the last two years, and we just executed. That’s what that was.”
Said Higgins, “That’s exactly what we talked about in our meeting last night. We have to be able to run the football, our linemen need to stay on blocks, and we need to get more cuts down field. And we needed to establish the quarterback and fullback again.”
Playing their home opener, the Catamounts cooperated with a sloppy first half. Punter Clark Sechrest mishandled a low punt snap, was spun around by Citadel special-teamer Walker Smith and sort of flung the ball in the air. Freshman linebacker Tevin Floyd gratefully grabbed it and strolled eight yards for his first college TD and a 14-0 lead.
Citadel punter Eric Goins fared much better on his own dropped snap. Goins tracked down the ball, turned upfield and ran seven yards for a first down. WCU was flagged 15 yards for a late hit on Goins, and the Bulldogs went from punting at their own 32 to first down at the Catamounts’ 45.
Another personal foul helped Dupree score his second TD for a 21-0 lead early in the second quarter.
The Bulldogs led 28-7 on Robbins’ 15-yard TD run down the sideline with 6:06 left in the game before WCU scored twice to cut the gap to 28-21. Quarterback Troy Mitchell ran for 106 yards and tailback Darius Ramsey for 102 yards and two scores.
The Catamounts’ last gasp came on fourth-and-14 from its own 37. A scrambling Mitchell ran left, reversed field and launched a pass toward Karnorris Benson. The diving McCladdie broke up the pass, the ball bouncing back toward the line of scrimmage and off the knee of Douglas. Baxter picked it out of the air, resembling Franco Harris on the Immaculate Reception in 1972.
“The coaches told us, we’ve got to make a stop and everybody dug deep,” said Baxter. “We knew if we made that stop, we had a chance to win.”
Now, the Bulldogs are back in the SoCon race and feeling better about themselves heading into next week’s non-conference game at Old Dominion.
“It just lets us know that we can win,” McCladdie said. “We’ve just got to work during the week and show up on Saturdays.”
Linebacker James Riley led the defense with 12 tackles, with two for loss and a half-sack. Derek Douglas also had a sack, and Mark Thomas shared one with Riley. Douglas had two tackles for loss and Justin Oxendine one. Carl Robinson had nine tackles as the Bulldogs went with 3-4 and 3-3-5 looks on defense.
Thomas Warren had a 33-yard field goal blocked in the final seconds of the first half. Eric Goins averaged 42.5 yards on two punts. DeAndre Schoultz took over as punt returner, returning one for five yards.