Who: The Citadel (2-4, 2-2) at Georgia Southern (3-2, 1-2)
When: 1 p.m. Saturday
Where: Paulson Stadium, Statesboro, Ga.
After Saturday’s 31-28 win over Appalachian State, Citadel quarterback Ben Dupree acknowledged the pressure that a 1-4 start had placed on the Bulldogs’ football team.
“It was a sigh of relief,” Dupree said of the moment that Thomas Warren’s 35-yard field goal crept over the crossbar in overtime. “It was relief. That’s what it felt like, relief.”
That sense of relief should help the 2-4 Bulldogs this week as they prepare for Saturday’s game at Georgia Southern (3-2). At 2-2 in the Southern Conference, The Citadel still is in a five-way tie for third place in league standings, behind only Samford and Wofford, both at 2-0.
“The morale of the players is higher now,” senior cornerback Sadath Jean-Pierre said Monday. “Everyone has been curious about what we are doing different, why aren’t we winning games. There’s always that doubt when you are losing games.
“But winning cures a lot of things. Now the guys who have been going hard in practice, they see the results of winning an overtime game like that, an exciting game. It brings everyone up and helps the camaraderie of the team.”
It also helps the team focus on the game ahead instead of pondering last week’s mistakes, said senior tackle Cullen Brown.
“It lets us focus on the future instead of dwelling on the past,” he said. “We can look to our next opponent and prepare for them better instead of worrying about our last game, or why it happened.”
But just as he did after the losses, Citadel coach Kevin Higgins wants his team to maintain its focus after a second straight win over App State.
“You can’t start saying, now we will begin this great streak and go win three in row,” he said. “If you start doing that, you lose focus. We have to everything we can to get our attention on Georgia Southern.”
Like App State, Georgia Southern is making its farewell tour through the SoCon before moving next year to FBS and the Sun Belt Conference. And also like App State, the Eagles’ good-bye tour is not going exactly as planned: Touted as the top team in the league in preseason polls, GSU is 1-2 in the SoCon thus far with losses to Wofford (30-20) and Samford (44-34 last week) and a narrow win over Chattanooga (23-21).
The Eagles’ normally stalwart defense ranks eighth in the SoCon in scoring defense in league games (31.7 ppg) and seventh in total defense, allowing 457.7 yards per game.
Last week, Samford quarterback Andy Summerlin threw for 495 yards and three touchdowns against the Eagles. But Higgins said that doesn’t mean much as GSU game-plans for The Citadel’s triple-option.
“If a team struggles against a spread team or another team that throws it around a lot, sometimes there’s not a lot of carryover,” Higgins said. “What we’re concerned about is how they will line up against us and what our matchups will look like.”
Against Wofford’s version of the triple-option on Sept. 14, the Eagles gave up 272 rushing yards, including 141 on 36 carries to fullback Donovan Johnson. Quarterback Michael Weimer hit 4 of 6 passes for 111 yards, including a 40-yard TD just before halftime.
On offense, GSU’s numbers are inflated by a couple of non-conference games against Savannah State and Saint Francis in which the Eagles scored 77 and 59 points.
In SoCon games, Georgia Southern is averaging 25.7 points, fourth in the league. After switching between quarterback and slotback earlier in the season, senior Jerick McKinnon has settled in at QB and is the leading rusher in the league, averaging 119.2 yards per game (155.7 in league games).
McKinnon seems to be the “run” QB for Georgia Southern. He carried 33 times for 181 yards and two scores against Samford, while going 0 for 5 passing. Meanwhile, redshirt freshman QB Kevin Ellison hit 7 of 7 passes for 140 yards and two touchdowns against Samford, but ran just five times for 18 yards.
“The last couple games, they’ve got him back under center and running true triple-option,” Higgins said of McKinnon, “trying to get him on the perimeter as much as they can.”
The Eagles are without all-SoCon fullback Dominque Swope, out after having shoulder surgery. Senior William Banks has filled in, and ran for 51 yards and a TD on 10 carries against Samford.
• Georgia Southern is leaving the SoCon for the Sun Belt next season, but this won’t be the Bulldogs’ final trip to Statesboro. The Citadel will play a non-conference game at Georgia Southern on Sept. 19, 2015, and will receive a reported guarantee of $175,000 for the game. The Bulldogs needed a game because new SoCon member East Tennessee State will not play as a league member until 2016.
The Bulldogs are slated to play Charleston Southern and Gardner-Webb of the Big South in 2014; Charleston Southern and Georgia Southern in 2015; and Gardner-Webb again in 2016.
• Kicker Thomas Warren was named SoCon special teams player of the week after his 35-yard game-winning field goal against App State. He also made all four of his extra points and has made a school-record 64 straight extra points.
• Higgins said redshirt freshman Eric Goins will return as the starting punter this week. Goins averaged 42.5 yards per punt in the first five games, but gave way to freshman Will Vanvick last week after Vanvick had a good week of practice. Against App State, Vanvick averaged just 28.8 yards on four kicks.
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