Citadel football: Senior players have been waiting for this season

Senior quarterback Ben Dupree was part of the first class Citadel coach Kevin Higgins recruited for the triple-option offense. (Wade Spees/postandcourier.com) Buy this photo

After watching his team give up one touchdown and just 245 yards at Georgia Southern — and lose anyway, 13-6 — Citadel football coach Kevin Higgins knew things had to change.

Date Opp. Time

Aug. 31 Charleston Southern 6 p.m.

Sept. 7 Wofford 6 p.m,

Sept. 14 at Western Carolina 3:30 p.m.

Sept. 21 at Old Dominion 6 p.m.

Sept. 28 Furman 6 p.m.

Oct. 5 Appalachian State 2 p.m.

Oct. 12 at Georgia Southern 1 p.m.

Oct. 26 at Chattanooga 2 p.m.

Nov. 2 Samford 2 p.m.

Nov. 9 at Elon 1:30 p.m.

Nov. 16 VMI 1 p.m.

Nov. 23 at Clemson TBA

“We’ve got to take a hard look at what we’re doing,” Higgins said after that loss on Nov. 21, 2009, which ended his fifth season at The Citadel with a 4-7 record.

BY THE NUMBERS

3.8 -- Penalties per game last year, lowest in FCS

21 -- Years since back-to-back winning seasons

7.2 -- Yards per carry for FB Darien Robinson in 2012

14 -- Straight losses to Wofford

That was the first public indication that Higgins, who had made his name at Lehigh University with pass-happy spread offenses, would turn to the run-first triple option.

Higgins criss-crossed the country that winter, searching for players who could run the option — fleet-footed quarterbacks, hard-charging fullbacks, versatile slotbacks and smaller, more agile linemen.

He found quarterback Ben Dupree and fullback Darien Robinson in Pennsylvania and beat Wofford for running back Terrance Martin out of Cowan, Tenn. Running back Dalton Trevino came from Georgia, and Matt Thompson was a quarterback before becoming a receiver in the triple option.

The offense also allowed Higgins to plug quick-footed big guys — tight ends Cullen Brown and Devin Bice, defensive lineman Keith Carter — into his offensive line, even if they weren’t 6-6 and 310 pounds.

The transition was not smooth. The Bulldogs fumbled 44 times while going 3-8 in 2010, and improved slightly to 4-7 in 2011. Last year’s 7-4 mark was a breakthrough, the Bulldogs’ second winning season in eight years under Higgins.

But this is the season the seniors in that first “option class” have been waiting for.

“There’s been some trying times in the past,” Thompson said. “But I feel like we’ve gained experience and knowledge of the offense. Now, we expect to showcase what we’ve learned.”

Said Robinson, “It’s been a building process since we got here. We feel like this is the year we’re going to put it together.”

Circumstances have conspired to help the Bulldogs, as well. Perennial Southern Conference powers Georgia Southern and Appalachian State are ineligible for the FCS playoffs and SoCon title this year as they transition to FBS and the Sun Belt.

That makes the SoCon title chase wide open — and Bulldogs fans expect their team to be right in the middle of it, along with Chattanooga, Samford and Wofford, which shared the championship with GSU and App State last season.

Higgins, 38-51 at The Citadel, has tried to put the brakes on happy talk with his motto of “1-0.”

“Expectations for the season are high,” he said. “And they should be. But people get caught up in talking about game No. 2 (Wofford), or Georgia Southern or App State. We want our guys to stay focused on the first game, and even more importantly on each practice. Just stay in the moment.”

With a senior-stuffed backfield and offensive line, and an experienced backup QB in junior Aaron Miller, most of the Bulldogs’ questions come down to filling holes.

Can sophomore Sam Frye make up for departed All-American Mike Sellers at center? Can sophomore James Riley and freshman Tevin Floyd carry the load for linebacker Carson Smith, lost in the preseason to a dislocated ankle? And can anyone approximate the skill of all-SoCon punter Cass Couey?

And then there is the question Citadel fans really want answered: Can the Bulldogs snap a 14-game losing streak to Wofford?

A win in that game would signal that the Bulldogs are at last ready to challenge for their first league title since 1992.

“No question,” Higgins said when asked if this was the most confident he’s felt at The Citadel. “The way we’ve prepared, the depth we have now, it’s more than we’ve ever had. But, this league is much better than it’s been before.

“We still have to play Georgia Southern and App State, and those games count. Chattanooga and Samford, they are not the teams they were four years ago. They are on the verge of being top 10 teams in the FCS. So it won’t be easy.”

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