They gave up a touchdown on the opening drive, were forced to call a timeout before their first offensive snap of the season, and botched their first punt. Less than seven minutes into the Mike Houston era at The Citadel, the Bulldogs trailed by two touchdowns.
It got only marginally better from there, as a crowd of 10,828 at Johnson Hagood Stadium saw The Citadel's new coach debut with a 31-16 loss to Coastal Carolina, the No. 6-ranked team in FCS.
All told, The Citadel fumbled eight times and had two promising drives derailed by personal fouls called on redshirt freshman tackle Isaiah Pinson, enough mistakes to keep the Bulldogs from threatening the Chanticleers, who have won 19 of their last 22 games against FCS competition.
"We faced a good football team, there's no doubt about it," said Houston, who was 29-8 in three years at Division II Lenoir-Rhyne before coming to The Citadel. "The disappointing thing is the way we started. You look at it and we had some young guys playing in their first action, and we had some mistakes that were critical. We gave away two great scoring opportunities and gave them one with the bad snap.
"It's frustrating, because I think that our team is good enough to where that should have been a tight ball game that we had a chance to win. It's the same thing I said all throughout is that the team that made the fewest mistakes tonight would win, and they did."
Coastal Carolina running back De'Angelo Henderson, a former Summerville High School star, gave his friends and family a thrill by scoring his team's first TD and running for 88 yards on 18 carries. Quarterback Alex Ross hit 24 of 32 passes for 263 yards and a score, and Andre Johnson and Aaron Aiken each scored touchdowns for the Chants in their first game against The Citadel.
The Bulldogs, now running Houston's version of the triple option, rushed for 358 yards and had two running backs crack the 100-yard mark. B-Back Tyler Renew rumbled for 137 yards and a TD, and slotback Jake Stenson had 120 yards on just 10 carries. Slotback Vinny Miller added 45 yards and a 5-yard TD.
But QB Aaron Miller could hit just 1 of 8 passes for 19 yards, and the Bulldogs never got closer than 11 points after Coastal gained that early lead.
"I won't take any credit from Coastal Carolina, they are a very good team," said Aaron Miller, a senior who ran for 49 yards on 20 carries in his first start. "But we made way too many mental errors and physical errors in order to win that game."
Two of the most critical mental errors were charged to Pinson, a 6-3, 250-pound offensive tackle from Byrnes High School. Playing in his first college game, the redshirt freshman was tagged with two personal fouls, both of them as the Bulldogs drove in CCU territory.
With the Bulldogs down 14-0 near the end of the first quarter, Pinson was hit with a personal foul on the far sideline, turning what would have been third-and-3 at the CCU 25 into third-and-18. The Bulldogs came up a yard short on fourth-and-14.
It was still 14-0 in the second quarter after the Chants missed two field goals when Pinson was flagged again after a CCU player's helmet flew off. That turned second-and-4 into second-and-19 at the CCU 43, and the Dogs had to punt.
"Devastating," Houston said. "And he knows it. I shared that with him at halftime, shared it with him on the sideline. It won't be a problem. He'll either get it corrected or somebody else will play."
Down 14-0 at the half, the Bulldogs opened the third quarter with a 15-play drive that took 7:41 off the clock. But Aaron Miller fumbled the snap on third-and-8, and The Citadel had to settle for a 42-yard field goal by Eric Goins to cut the lead to 14-3 midway through the third.
CCU put the hammer down with two straight touchdowns, one on a 9-yard pass from Ross to Bruce Mapp and the second on Johnson's 1-yard TD plunge to ice the game at 28-3 with 12:55 left. Vinny Miller scored on a 5-yard run and Renew on a 30-yard gallop in the fourth quarter for The Citadel, which plays next week at defending FBS national champion Florida State.
Coastal Carolina opened the game with a 60-yard TD drive, Henderson going over from the 5-yard line for a 7-0 lead.
After needing a timeout before their first snap of the season, the Bulldogs handed CCU another score. Hunter Morris' snap was too low for punter Eric Goins to handle, and he was smothered at his own 16. The Chants scored three plays later on a 6-yard run by Aaron Aiken, and less than seven minutes into the game, the Bulldogs trailed by 14-0.
"I think we competed from a physical standpoint," Houston said. "But the mistakes kept us from being competitive on the scoreboard."