Next season starts now for Bulldogs
"Wait 'til next year," is the rallying cry for football teams with records like The Citadel's 2-8 mark. But coach Kevin Higgins doesn't want to wait until next year to start work on the 2011 season.
"Next season starts this week," was Higgins' message Monday at his final weekly news conference of the season, as The Citadel prepares for Saturday's season-ender at Samford.
"We need to keep building on some of the things we've done and see if we can get next season off to a great start on Saturday," Higgins said.
A victory against Samford (4-6, 2-5) would snap a seven-game skid for The Citadel, end a 10-game losing streak in Southern Conference play and avoid the Bulldogs' first winless SoCon season since 1995. But the intangible benefits of a final victory might mean even more for a team that finally saw some offensive progress in a 27-16 loss to Elon two weeks ago.
In that game, The Citadel's triple option offense totaled 18 first downs, 228 rushing yards and 300 total yards, big improvements over the previous week's 35-0 loss to Wofford (11, 132, 143) and last year's 43-7 loss to Elon (5, 18, 120).
"Our offense is what has slowed us down this year," Higgins said. "But after the Elon game, I think the guys walked off the field saying, 'Wow, we can do some things here. We can get the ball on the perimeter, we can make good decisions, we don't have to turn the ball over, we can complete some passes.' I think our guys are sensing that now."
Higgins pointed to three players as key to the improvement against Elon: senior slotback Rickey Anderson, freshman center Mike Sellers and freshman quarterback Ben Dupree. The injury-plagued Anderson ran for 36 yards on seven carries and provided an emotional lift, while Dupree totaled 85 yards on 23 carries and hit 3 of 6 passes for 48 yards. More importantly, he didn't turn the ball over.
"Rickey ran awfully hard against Elon, turned the corner and showed some speed and also blocked extremely well on the perimeter," Higgins said. "He really brought a spark to us. Ben made an awful lot of big plays, scrambled several times on third down and had some real nice passes on third down. He did a nice job of running the offense, and you could really see his confidence continue to improve this week."
Sellers, a 6-0, 273-pound freshman from Fort Dorchester, started his first game at center and helped the offensive line turn in one of its better performances this season.
"Mike did an excellent job inside," Higgins said. "What a difference he made at the line of scrimmage."
A bye week also should help The Citadel prepare for a Samford defense that has been particularly hard on option offenses this season. Samford held Georgia Southern to 174 total yards in a 20-13 road win, then limited Wofford to a season-low in points in a 10-3 loss.
Samford usually runs a 4-3 defense, but against option teams has shown a "bear" front with defensive linemen directly over the center and both guards.
"We've had a chance to watch Wofford and Georgia Southern attack it, and then a week of extra practice against it," Higgins said. "Hopefully, that will benefit us."
Samford is coming off a 48-14 loss to Chattanooga and has lost two straight and three of four. Senior running back Chris Evans is second in the SoCon with 1,015 rushing yards and seven touchdowns.
"This one can give us some momentum going into the off-season," Higgins said.
--Rickey Anderson is among six seniors who have decided to return for a fifth season next year, despite the many injuries he's battled through in his career. He said a pre-practice talk last week from Norman Seabrooks, the first African-American player at The Citadel, helped solidify his decision.
"He said, 'It's always easier to quit the second time,'" said Anderson, a 6-0, 201-pounder.. "I agree with that. That's why I haven't quit yet. It's a great opportunity to take advantage of, and to leave something behind here, to leave a legacy."
Offensive tackle Tyler Thornton, slot back Christian Robertson, defensive lineman Quintin Turner, kicker Ryan Sellers and linebacker John Synovec also will return for their fifth years, Higgins said.
Who: The Citadel (2-8, 0-7) at Samford (4-6, 2-5)
When: Saturday, 2:05 p.m.
Where: Seibert Stadium, Birmingham, Ala.