When Charleston Southern and first-year head coach Jamey Chadwell look back at the 2013 season, there is plenty to be proud of. CSU captured a program-record 10 victories, achieved the highest national ranking in school history, and delivered a landmark win over FCS then-No. 3 Coastal Carolina.
All of that was hard to keep in perspective on Saturday, though, following a 56-14 loss to Liberty at Buccaneer Field. Playing for a share of the Big South Conference championship and the program’s first-ever berth in the FCS Playoffs, the Bucs were far from at their best.
CSU quarterbacks Kyle Copeland and Danny Croghan III threw four interceptions and the Bucs committed 14 penalties as the Flames piled up 448 yards of offense to claim a share of their sixth Big South title in seven years.
Coastal Carolina earns the Big South’s automatic bid to the playoffs by virtue of holding the head-to-head tiebreaker with Liberty. Both Liberty (8-4, 4-1 BSC) and CSU (10-3, 3-2 BSC) will hope for an at-large bid to the FCS Playoffs when the field is announced on Sunday morning.
“It’s obviously not the way you wish it would have went,” Chadwell said. “We had four turnovers — three of them there in the first half — and a lot of penalties. When you give a team like that a lead and don’t play well, and they had a lot to do with it, you’re down 21-0 going into half. We had some chances but just couldn’t make the plays.”
CSU freshman running back Michael Holloway provided the Bucs a glimmer of hope when he dashed for 58 yards on the second half’s first play from scrimmage. That burst led to a Kyle Copeland four-yard touchdown run, trimming the Liberty lead to 21-7 with 13:42 left in the third quarter. It was all Liberty from there, as the Flames scored 28 unanswered points to cruise to their eighth straight triumph over the Bucs.
CSU honored its 13 seniors before kickoff, and Chadwell grew emotional in reflecting on the contributions of a group that helped stage a remarkable turnaround from a 0-11 season two years ago.
“There’s a lot of great things,” Chadwell said, fighting back tears. “It was a special year and I wish it would have ended better, but just the senior class and really changing the whole identity of the program and creating school spirit, it’s something that they can take with them after this hurt hits home.”
Liberty established control on the opening possession of the game, traveling 66 yards in six plays to take a 7-0 lead on quarterback Josh Woodrum’s 13-yard touchdown run. Woodrum also passed for three touchdowns while completing 23-of-28 attempts for 239 yards. He paced a Liberty offensive effort that produced a 18:02 advantage in time of possession against a CSU team leading the country in the category coming into play.
CSU converted a pair of third downs to move the football to the Liberty 30-yard line on its first possession, but that’s when Copeland made his first mistake of the day. Copeland threw back across his body while on the run and was picked off by Liberty safety Jacob Hagen for the first of two times on the afternoon.
The Bucs’ defense responded by forcing two straight three-and-outs, but penalties helped the Flames push their advantage to 14-0. CSU safety Demaris Freeman was called for defensive holding and defensive back Malcolm Jackson was flagged for pass interference, nullifying a pair of third-down stops. Liberty took advantage, as Woodrum found Dante Shells for an 18-yard touchdown to make it 14-0 with 10:32 remaining in the half.
Liberty then turned another Copeland interception into points later in the second quarter, as Woodrum hooked up with tight end Dexter Herman for a three-yard score. CSU pushed the football to the Liberty 40-yard line on its ensuing possession, but a Croghan interception eliminated a chance to get on the scoreboard before halftime.
“I think we were trying to do so much, you try to play above your head and you get foolish penalties and mistakes,” Chadwell said. “I think we were ready. The moment wasn’t too big and I don’t think the pressure got us. They were just playing well. I don’t think we played as well as we had and it showed.”
CSU grabbed some momentum out of halftime thanks to Holloway’s 58-yard run, but Liberty quickly snuffed out any chance of a comeback. Woodrum connected with Gabe Henderson for 28 yards to move the chains on a crucial third-and-one on the following series, and Desmond Rice eventually plunged across the goal line from two yards out to reinstate a three-touchdown lead.
The Liberty advantage eventually swelled to 49-7, as the Flames scored touchdowns on their first five possessions of the second half. That was tough to swallow for CSU seniors like inside linebacker and captain Calvin Bryant, who saw their dreams of a conference title and automatic playoff bid slip away.
“It was a very tough loss because of everything that we’ve been through the last couple of years — going 0-11, not having any winning seasons, Bryant said. “Today we had an opportunity and we just didn’t take it. We didn’t come out with the fire we’re supposed to have and give credit to Liberty. They came out to play and they whipped our tails.”
Just two weeks after celebrating a win over No. 3 Coastal Carolina in front of a record home crowd, CSU was forced to watch Liberty celebrate another conference championship.
“We talked about the ride that we had and that you can learn from any situation, and it just shows you what the power of believing in each other does,” Chadwell said of his postgame address to the Bucs. “When you put yourself so close to have an opportunity to get a playoff bid and win a conference championship and you don’t get it, there’s going to be some linger there. When you get close to taste something and you’re right there at it and don’t get it, it makes you want to get back there again, so I think that will allow us some more added motivation and something to push for in the offseason.”