Inside a frenzied Citadel locker room, coach Kevin Higgins was doused by ice water and crowd-surfed over happy players.
“Here’s what they said!” Higgins yelled. “They said this football team couldn’t come back and win a big game!”
For once in a disappointing season, the Bulldogs proved otherwise. They fell behind by 17 points against the Southern Conference’s top team, No. 19 Samford, and then stormed back for a 28-26 victory at Johnson Hagood Stadium.
The Citadel scored 21 straight points and outscored Samford, 28-3, over one stretch to take a 28-20 lead early in the fourth quarter. By the time Samford’s attempt at a tying 2-point conversion failed with 1:22 left, a homecoming crowd of 13,828 that seemed resigned to a loss at halftime was shouting its approval.
“We beat the No. 1 team in the conference on homecoming, and 13,000 fans witnessed it,” said senior quarterback Ben Dupree. “It can’t get any better than that.”
Samford dropped to 6-3 overall and 4-1 in the league, creating a logjam atop the SoCon with No. 16 Wofford (5-3, 4-1) and Chattanooga (7-2, 5-1), a 35-28 winner over Appalachian State. Furman (4-5, 3-2) is just a game back after a 16-14 win at Georgia Southern.
The Citadel (3-6, 3-4) won’t be in the hunt for a SoCon title or FCS playoff bid. But for one afternoon, anyway, all of those close losses didn’t matter. The Citadel is now 3-5 in games decided by a touchdown or less this season.
“I’d much rather have a winning record,” said senior fullback Darien Robinson, who scored a career-best three touchdowns. “But we come out and fight every week. The margin of defeat in our games is proof of that. We could have easily won any of those games we lost. But it was great to come out and get one.”
Especially against Samford, which entered the game with a four-game win streak and an offense averaging 43.5 points in league games. The Citadel caught a break when Samford’s top back, Fabian Truss, suffered a leg injury in the first half. He did not carry the ball in the second half, finishing with 58 yards on 11 carries.
The Citadel’s defense pressured sixth-year quarterback Andy Summerlin, sacking him three times and forcing two turnovers, an interception by safety Nick Willis and a fumble picked out of the air by linebacker Tevin Floyd.
On offense, Citadel coaches tweaked the triple-option against Samford’s “Bear” front, which places linemen over the center and both guards. Speed sweeps and shovel passes helped The Citadel gain 393 yards, with slotback Vinny Miller rushing for 95 yards and a score, Dupree for 90 yards and Robinson for 83.
“This was a tough loss,” Samford head coach Pat Sullivan said. “Give Citadel all the credit in the world. I said earlier this week I thought they had as good of a team as we were going to play the rest of the year.”
Samford built a 17-0 lead in the first half on a 22-yard TD pass from Summerlin to Chris Cephus (off a double-reverse) and Truss’ 1-yard TD run.
Dupree scrambled for gains of 13 and 25 yards as The Citadel salvaged a TD just before the half, on Robinson’s 3-yard run. That made it 17-7 at intermission and gave The Citadel some hope.
“That was big,” Higgins said. “You don’t want to go in being down 17-0.”
But the play that really changed the game was a 27-yard run by punter Eric Goins on a fake punt on fourth and 11 from his own 36 on The Citadel’s first drive of the second half. Five plays later, Robinson scored from nine yards out and the game was on at 17-14.
“We had talked about running the fake a lot of games before that,” Goins said. “I just saw a bunch of green grass in front of me. I was running behind (tackle) Devin Bice, and I felt good about that, because he’s a pretty big guy.”
The Citadel took the lead after defensive end Mark Thomas forced a fumble with a sack of Summerlin, linebacker Tevin Floyd picking the ball out of their air. Robinson ran for eight yards on third-and-4, and Miller scored from eight yards out for a 21-17 lead with 4:44 left in the third quarter.
Robinson’s 29-yard TD burst with 12:27 left made it 28-20.
All The Citadel had to survive from there was:
A final Samford TD drive (Summerlin passed eight yards to Jauan Davis to make it 28-26 with 1:22 left).
A 2-point try to tie the game (blanket coverage by cornerback Sadath Jean-Pierre forced an incompletion).
An onside kick (Samford touched it illegally, but Ian Thompson recovered it anyway).
And three Samford timeouts as The Citadel tried to run out the clock.
“It says a lot about this team,” Higgins said of the win. “It’s a great senior class. They’ve been in every game this year, and unfortunately haven’t found a way. But today, they wanted this game more than the other team, and found a way to get it done.”
Ben Dupree ran for 90 yards and moved into No. 7 on the career rushing list with 2,435 yards ... Darien Robinson is now 57 yards behind Andrew Johnson (2,792 yards) for No. 4 on The Citadel’s career list ... The Citadel now has nine wins all-time against other Bulldog teams — four each against S.C. State and Samford and one against North Carolina A&T.
Safety Nick Willis led The Citadel defense with 10 tackles and an interception ... Sophomore DE Mark Thomas had 1.5 sacks, giving him nine sacks in just 22 career tackles ... Justin Oxendine also had a sack, and Tevin Floyd split one with Thomas ... LB Carl Robinson had nine tackles.