ELON, N.C. — As freshman Tyler Renew stepped up for a postgame interview, Citadel quarterback Ben Dupree made a sweet cut, slicing between Renew and a reporter.
“Naw, that’s a rookie,” laughed Dupree, who accounted for four touchdowns Saturday. “Veterans first.”
Citadel freshmen have learned a lot from their elders this season, mainly about how to play a season out until its end. Saturday’s 35-10 win at Elon was the Bulldogs’ second in a row as they finished off their Southern Conference slate with a 4-4 record.
Obviously, that’s not where The Citadel hoped to be when the season started, and in retrospect a weakened SoCon was there to be won this year. On the other hand, only 12 of the Bulldogs’ last 25 teams have finished at .500 or better in the SoCon.
The Citadel (4-6 overall) has two non-conference games left — at home against VMI next week in the Military Classic of the South, and a payday game at Clemson on Nov. 23.
“This season’s been rough,” said senior fullback Darien Robinson, who caught a 65-yard touchdown pass from Dupree. “But we’re all fighters. We want to go out on a positive note and win as many games as we can, and that’s what today was all about.”
That attitude has not been lost on Citadel underclassmen, some of whom played big roles in Saturday’s win. Renew, a fullback, ran 61 yards for his first career TD, and freshman linebacker Tevin Floyd picked off two passes.
“They are painting a path for me,” Floyd said of the Bulldogs’ seniors. “They are showing me how, when I get in a leadership position, to keep pushing and keep going forward.”
Elon (2-8, 1-5) didn’t have quite as much gumption, as the Bulldogs scored the final 28 points to hand the Phoenix their fourth straight loss. Quarterback Mike Quinn was 16 of 36 for just 139 yards and was intercepted three times, twice by Floyd and once by cornerback Brandon McCladdie.
“Once we got out to a lead, they kind of shut down a little,” Dupree said. “And we kind of thought they would.”
Said Elon coach Jason Swepson: “Just feels like we’re not strong enough physically and mentally to play a 60-minute football game … Obviously, it’s a low point right now. I think the close losses over the season just caught up with us, and maybe we didn’t have anything left in the tank.”
Citadel coach Kevin Higgins asked his defense for more turnovers a couple of weeks ago, and the Bulldogs have delivered in wins over Samford and Elon, forcing a total of five turnovers in those two games.
Against Elon, an aggressive hit by McCladdie forced a deflection that was picked off by Floyd, setting up the Bulldogs’ first TD. Floyd’s goal-line interception in the third quarter prevented an Elon TD and set up a 97-yard drive that ended with a 17-yard Dupree score for a 35-10 lead.
“Our defense played a great four quarters, as good as they’ve played,” Higgins said. “We broke on the ball better than ever against a good-throwing team, and we tackled better. Three interceptions — we haven’t had that in a long time.”
Elon stacked the box and did a fairly good job against the Bulldogs’ option attack, with the exception of Renew’s 61-yard TD run for a 28-10 lead in the third quarter.
But that left the Phoenix secondary vulnerable to play-action fakes, and for once The Citadel was able to make an opponent pay. Dupree hit 4 of 6 passes for a career-best 166 yards (41.5 yards per catch), including throws of 51 yards to Jorian Jordan and 45 yards to Dalton Trevino.
For Elon, it could have been even worse. Trevino dropped a sure TD pass from backup QB Aaron Miller, and Dupree’s throws to Jordan and Trevino were a little short.
“Usually I overthrow those,” Dupree said. “But I wanted to give the guys a chance to catch it.”
Dupree’s throw to Robinson for a 65-yard TD on the second play of the third quarter was perfect, however, and broke open the game at 21-10.
Now, Citadel seniors face their final home game and a chance to salvage even more from this season — the coveted Silver Shako.
“These guys didn’t take anything for granted today,” Higgins said. “They played with the same emotion they have the last couple of weeks. Now, the seniors have one more home game, and that’s going to be kind of sad. We have so many great guys in that class.”
Ben Dupree now has 33 rushing touchdowns, placing him third on The Citadel’s career list ahead of No. 4 Stump Mitchell (31). Dupree trails only Everette Sands (34) and Jack Douglas (50) on the career list.
Linebacker Carl Robinson led The Citadel with nine tackles against Elon, and LB James Riley had six. Tackle Mitchell Jeter had the Bulldogs’ lone sack. McCladdie now has eight career interceptions, two this year.