It’s been almost a year — 10 months and 11 days, to be exact — since Western Carolina played what Catamounts coach Mark Speir calls “a like team.”
Who: The Citadel (0-2, 0-1) at Western Carolina (0-2, 0-0)
When: 3:30 p.m.
Where: E.J. Whitmire Stadium, Cullowhee, N.C.
The last time WCU played a fellow FCS squad was on Nov. 3, 2012, when the Catamounts lost 45-24 to Southern Conference for Chattanooga.
Since then, Western Carolina has played FBS teams Alabama (losing 49-0) to close the 2012 season, and Middle Tennessee State (losing 45-24) and Virginia Tech (losing 45-3) to open this season.
Those games have enriched WCU coffers by more than $1 million, but leave no clue as to how much or how little the Catamounts have improved in the last year.
Is WCU still the same SoCon doormat that has lost 12 straight games overall and 28 straight to Division I foes, whether FCS or FBS? Or has the rebuilding job undertaken by Speir, a former App State assistant, began to take hold in his second season?
The Citadel (0-2, 0-1 SoCon) will try to solve that mystery Saturday in a must-win game for the Bulldogs. Game time is 3:30 p.m. in Cullowhee, N.C.
“I have no idea about their (losing) streak,” Citadel coach Kevin Higgins said. “We look at what they’ve done this season, and they’ve played two FBS opponents with bigger and stronger players than they have. But I’m impressed with what Coach Speir has done.
“They are a lot more disciplined, and the structure of their defense keeps improving.”
The 0-2 Catamounts are eager to measure themselves against a team with the same number of scholarships and similar resources. After all, the last Division I team they beat was The Citadel, by 24-13 in 2010.
“Our guys were spirited and upbeat in practice,” said Speir, whose only win in 13 games as WCU’s coach was 42-14 over Division II Mars Hill last season. “This is our first test against a like opponent. And I’m excited to see what our young guys will do.”
Last year, the Catamounts gave the Bulldogs a tussle in Charleston before falling by 45-24. WCU quarterback Troy Mitchell and tailback Darius Ramsey both cracked the 100-yard mark as the Catamounts totaled almost 300 rushing yards.
Mitchell, a 6-2, 200-pound sophomore, suffered a concussion in the opener at MTSU and did not play against Virginia Tech. He’s available this week, and likely will share time with redshirt junior Eddie Sullivan.
“Mitchell gave us fits last year, he really hurt us,” Higgins said. “And their team is loaded with skill players, with maybe more speed on the field than our first two opponents. That’s always a challenge for The Citadel.”
WCU’s issues during its long fallow period have mostly been on defense; the Catamounts gave up 40.8 points per game last year, worst in the SoCon. That number’s at 45 ppg this year, but against two FBS squads.
Some good moments against Virginia Tech — WCU held the Hokies to 64 rushing yards in the first half — boosted Speir’s confidence. Linebacker Courtland Carson, a 6-0, 200-pound senior, had 14 tackles against Virginia Tech.
“We came out of that game thinking that if we execute and do things right, we can hold our own at times against Virginia Tech,” he said. “But it’s been a long time since we played an FCS opponent.”
For his part, Higgins has vowed a “back to basics” approach this week after the Bulldogs dropped their first two games to Charleston Southern and Wofford, mustering only a field goal on offense in a 21-10 loss to the Terriers.
Fullback Darien Robinson, who rushed for 1,007 yards last season, is on pace for 522 yards this year through two games. Big-play QB Ben Dupree has been bottled up, with a long gain of just 24 yards and only one TD. And the Bulldogs’ average of 223.5 rushing yards is a full 77 yards below last year’s average.
“The bottom line is, we’ve not been executing like we’d like to,” Higgins said. “So you go back and make sure you are majoring in the things you need to in order to be successful, and that’s this process is about this week.”