Usually silent in defeat, The Citadel locker room was loud with the sound of hot tempers Saturday night.
Voices were raised and doors slammed after a 24-17 loss to rival Furman before 12,693 fans at Johnson Hagood Stadium, leaving the Bulldogs with a 1-4 record nearly halfway through a once eagerly anticipated football season.
“We need a reality check,” said senior fullback Darien Robinson after The Citadel fell to 1-2 in the Southern Conference. “We talk a lot about what we want to achieve as a team, but we don’t go out there and play like it. We’ve got to look ourselves in the mirror and decide what we really want to do with this season.
“It could go a good way or a bad way, and we have to figure it out.”
Furman (2-2, 1-0), which needed a last-second blocked field goal two weeks ago just to beat Presbyterian, avenged last year’s 42-20 loss to The Citadel with a backup QB polishing off the victory.
Freshman Duncan Fletcher, in for injured starter Reese Hannon, hit receiver Gary Robinson deep for 43 yards, setting up the Paladins’ go-ahead TD. Fullback Tanner Skogen scored from 13 yards out to give Furman a 24-17 lead with 9:43 left.
The Citadel had two chances to tie it, but backup QB Aaron Miller’s pass on fourth-and-9 from the Furman 20 was behind slotback Vinny Miller, ending the Bulldogs’ final threat with 1:10 left.
Two Fletcher kneel-downs set off a purple party in the visitors’ stands, while Bulldog faithful were stunned by a third straight home loss.
“We have been trying to get over the hump in winning some close games,” said Furman coach Bruce Fowler, now 11-15 in his third season. “Last week, we really squeaked a win out at the end, and this week maybe when it got down towards the end of the game, our guys drew on that experience.”
The Bulldogs, meanwhile, must first find the hump before they can think about getting over it.
“We’re going to have to have people step up and become leaders and push through this adversity,” said Citadel QB Aaron Miller, whose 59-yard TD bomb to Robinson tied the score at 17-17 with 14:51 left. “It’s going downhill, and we need to stop it right now.”
Two of The Citadel’s first three losses featured unique brands of self-destruction — two dropped punts against Charleston Southern, failure to recover two onside kicks at Old Dominion — and this game was no different.
An interception of an Aaron Miller pass by Furman corner Reggie Thomas set up the Paladins’ go-ahead TD. And two Citadel penalties were killers — a chop block on tackle Devin Bice when the Bulldogs had first down at the Furman 8 after a 36-yard run by Jake Stenson; and an intentional grounding call on QB Ben Dupree after his 32-yard pass to Vinny Miller, both in the third quarter.
A bad snap on the Bulldogs’ final drive didn’t help, either.
“Seemed like every time we hit a big play, we got a penalty,” said coach Kevin Higgins.
After watching tape of The Citadel’s 59-58 loss at ODU, in which the Bulldogs ran for 453 yards, Furman’s defense stacked the box with nine players and dared the Bulldogs to pass.
The Citadel was held to 132 yards rushing out of 321 total, the first time since Higgins went to the triple option in 2010 that the Bulldogs had more yards rushing than passing.
“They were begging us to throw some play-action passes,” said Higgins, whose quarterbacks hit 13 of 22 passes for 189 yards and two scores, including Dupree’s 15-yard TD pass to Stenson. “But we didn’t do enough damage there.”
Meanwhile, two long balls by Furman proved costly. After The Citadel cut the Paladins’ lead to 10-7 late in the first half, Hannon found receiver Gary Robinson on a mismatch against Bulldogs linebacker Rah Muhammad for a 36-yard gain. That set up Terry Robinson for his second TD run, a 2-yarder for a 17-7 lead just 24 seconds before the half.
The second long ball was Fletcher’s 43-yarder to a diving Gary Robinson in the fourth quarter, setting up the go-ahead TD. Safety Nick Willis was in position, but could not beat Robinson, who caught eight passes for 133 yards.
“We didn’t play the long ball very well,” Higgins said after Furman’s quarterbacks combined to hit 16 of 21 passes for 228 yards. “The one before the half really hurt us. We should have had a centerfielder there. On the second one, we had a centerfielder there but didn’t make the play.”
Now, the Bulldogs face former SoCon power Appalachian State, stumbling toward FBS and the Sun Belt with a 1-3 record after Saturday’s 27-24 loss to Charleston Southern.
“Sounds like we and App State are in the same boat, with high expectations going in,” Higgins said. “We have to figure out how not to give up so many big plays, and how to get the running game going.”
The Citadel played without slotbacks Dalton Trevino (knee) and Devan Robbins, a freshman who has left school for personal reasons … The last three Citadel touchdowns have come on passes, two against Furman and one against ODU, and two of them caught by slotback Jake Stenson … Linebacker Carl Robinson led the Bulldogs with eight tackles, and linebacker James Riley and safety Akeem Garnett had seven each … Justin Oxendine and Cam Mobley each had a sack; Oxendine had 2.5 tackles for loss.
The Bulldogs wore throwback jerseys with a big block “C” on the front during pre-game warmups, but had to change to their standard uniforms for the game. Citadel officials said the SoCon had approved the throwback uniforms, but word apparently did reach the game officials. They ruled that the numbers on the front of the throwback jerseys were too small.