Citadel foe Chattanooga on verge of SoCon breakthrough
Like The Citadel, Chattanooga began a football season of high expectations with a deflating home loss to what was perceived as a lesser opponent.
Who: The Citadel (2-5, 2-3) at Chattanooga (5-2, 3-1)
When: 2 p.m.
Where: Finley Stadium, Chattanooga, Tenn.
But unlike the Bulldogs, the Mocs have rallied from that disappointing start to put themselves in position to challenge for a Southern Conference championship.
A win Saturday over The Citadel would put Chattanooga (5-2, 3-1) in a tie for second place in the league, with games against contenders Samford and Wofford still to play. A sixth victory would also match the Mocs’ best total in five seasons under coach Russ Huesman.
“Chattanooga is getting better and better every week,” said Citadel coach Kevin Higgins, whose team is 2-5 overall and 2-3 in the SoCon. “They are right in the thick of a championship, and they are going to give us their best shot.”
Chattanooga was ranked No. 24 in FCS preseason polls and a popular pick to contend for its first SoCon title since 1984. But the Mocs promptly dropped a 31-21 decision to UT Martin, an underdog squad from the Ohio Valley Conference.
Since then, the Mocs have won five of six games, the only loss a narrow 23-21 defeat at Georgia Southern on Sept. 28. Chattanooga’s surge breaks down neatly into three cateogories:
• An improved running game. After ranking seventh in rushing in the SoCon the last two seasons, the Mocs are up to fourth this year, averaging 243 yards per game. That’s the best for a non-triple-option team in the league.
Junior running back Keon Williams is healthy and averaging 98 yards per game. If you don’t count Georgia Southern quarterback-turned-fullback Jerick McKinnon, Mocs quarterback Jacob Huesman is the No. 2 rushing QB in the league at 79 yards per game.
“We made a decision we were going to run the football, and our offensive staff has done a great job with that,” said Huesman, who hired offensive coordinator Jeff Durden from James Madison in the off-season. “Keon Williams is running very physical and making the right cuts and making people miss. But his thing is getting three or four yards after contact, and he’s been getting that or more. That’s really helped us out, no question.”
• A defense staffed with preseason All-Americans at each level – left end Davis Tull, middle linebacker Wes Dothard, safety D.J. Key and cornerback Kadeem Wise. The Mocs lead the SoCon in scoring defense (16.7 ppg) and have not allowed a TD in the last two games, wins over Furman (31-9) and Elon (20-9).
• The emergence of sophomore QB Jacob Huesman, the coach’s son. A QB controversy last season – backup QB Terrell Robinson briefly left he team – has settled down with Robinson playing receiver and throwing the occasional pass.
Jacob Huesman is third in the league in passing efficiency, hitting 67.4 percent of his throws for 950 yards, with 11 touchdowns and four interceptions.
“Jacob throws the ball better than people think, and he’s a very good runner,” Higgins said. “He’s got better speed than people think, too.”
It all adds up to a tough task for the Bulldogs, who are coming off an open date. The Citadel lost by 28-10 to Chattanooga last year, and has lost three of the last four meetings.
But on their last trip to Chattanooga, the Bulldogs pulled off a miracle rally, coming back from a 27-0 deficit to win by 28-27, a game Huesman won’t soon forget.
“(The Citadel) is the best 2-5 team in the country, bar none,” Huesman told reporters this week.