CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — Protecting a three-point lead in the final minutes, Citadel coach Kevin Higgins was determined not to punt the football back to Chattanooga until he absolutely had to.
Higgins twice ordered the Bulldogs to go for it on fourth down in their own territory, and twice they converted.
“A huge, huge gamble,” Higgins said. “But I wanted to give our guys a chance.”
When The Citadel did finally have to punt, the Mocs quickly confirmed the coach’s worst fears. Chattanooga needed only six plays to cover 79 yards for the winning score, on quarterback Jacob Huesman’s 13-yard touchdown run with 2:02 left in the game.
The Mocs’ 28-24 victory delighted a crowd of 8,106 fans at Finley Stadium, kept Chattanooga in the thick of the Southern Conference title race, and thoroughly frustrated a Citadel team that dominated much of the game.
“We’re tired of having it come down to two or three plays and end up losing,” said linebacker Rah Muhammad. “We’ve got to figure out a way to win these games.”
The Bulldogs (2-6, 2-4) built leads of 17-7 at halftime and 24-14 in the third quarter, piling up 334 rushing yards and 36:41 in time of possession against the SoCon’s top defense.
Fullback Darien Robinson ran for 129 yards on 24 carries; quarterback Ben Dupree scored on a 13-yard run; backup QB Aaron Miller threw a 41-yard TD pass to Jake Stenson; and Dalton Trevino’s 61-yard TD run gave the Bulldogs a 24-14 lead with 6:24 left in the third quarter.
“To do all that still lose, there’s nothing you can hang your hat on,” Dupree said. “We moved the ball, but we did have a turnover and a couple of missed reads on the option. We didn’t execute when we really needed to.”
The most crucial failure in execution came with The Citadel up by 24-21 in the fourth quarter, after the Bulldogs had converted twice on fourth down.
Miller bulled for two yards on a QB sneak on fourth-and-1 at his own 26. Then, Robinson was rocked in the backfield on fourth-and-1 at The Citadel 37, but somehow kept his feet and got outside for two yards and another first down.
But on third-and-3 at The Citadel 46, freshman tackle Harrison Davis was flagged for 5-yard penalty for a false start. On third-and-8, Miller’s pass fell incomplete, forcing a punt to the Mocs’ 21 with 3:42 left. It was too much time, and the Mocs made the winning drive look way too easy.
Huesman hit C.J. Board for 28 yards, then ran three straight times up the middle for 36 yards, including the game-winning TD. He finished with 95 yards on 13 carries.
“They had been running the stretch play, the stretch play to the outside, and we had guys coming up on the perimeter to stop it,” Higgins said. “Huesman did a very good job cutting the ball back. Bottom line, we needed to stop him and we didn’t do it.”
Chattanooga (4-1 SoCon) survived a game when leading rusher Keon Williams suffered a leg injury on the opening kickoff and didn’t play again. The Mocs are tied for second place in the SoCon with Wofford (5-3, 4-1), a 34-27 loser Saturday to first-place Samford (6-2, 4-0). The Mocs, 6-2 for the first time since 1997, host Wofford on Nov. 9 and go to Samford on Nov. 16.
“It was a great job by Jacob and all of our guys,” said Mocs coach Russ Huesman, the quarterback’s father. “I was screaming and yelling at Jacob in the first half, getting after him pretty good, and (offensive coordinator) Jeff Durden doesn’t coach him like that. He kept telling me that he’d get it right and he came back to have a great second half.”
At 2-6, The Citadel is virtually guaranteed its seventh losing season in nine years under Higgins. The Bulldogs have four games left, but one of them is at Clemson on Nov. 23. Five of their losses are by a TD or less.
“We’re 2-6,” Dupree said. “It was another close loss, but that doesn’t matter. It’s still a loss. We’re still together, we still believe in each other. We’re playing for each other now, and that’s what we will keep doing.”
The memory of an excellent first half, when the Bulldogs piled up a 267-83 edge in total yards and a 17-7 lead, made the loss even harder to take.
“It’s hard, real hard,” Higgins said. “They did what we asked them to do, they played with emotion, all those things. But in the second half, we just needed one stop, one turnover, another first down, and we didn’t get it. That’s the difference between winning and losing.”
Sophomore receiver Brandon Eakins of Wando High School underwent emergency surgery Friday in Chattanooga for a problem with his lower abdomen. His parents took him back to Charleston. “It was a little scary, and he was in some pain,” Higgins said.
With 129 rushing yards, Darien Robinson moved into fifth place on The Citadel’s career list with 2,652 yards, ahead of Nehemiah Broughton, who rushed for 2,636 yards from 2001-04. Robinson needs 140 yards to catch Andrew Johnson (2,792 yards) for fourth place.
Linebackers Rah Muhammad and Carl Robinson led the Bulldogs with six tackles each, and freshman linebacker Tevin Floyd had five. Muhammad and safety Nick Willis each had two tackles for loss, and Willis and Derek Douglas each had a sack ... The Citadel’s defense held Chattanooga to 189 rushing yards, the first time in six games the Mocs have rushed for fewer than 200 yards ... Mocs punter Nick Pollard put five punts out inside the Bulldogs 20-yard line, four times inside the six.