Ball control key for Citadel vs. ODU

Time of possession will be key for The Citadel and fullback Darien Robinson against high-scoring Old Dominion. (Shane Roper/Special to The Post and Courier)

The Citadel opened last week’s 28-21 victory at Western Carolina with a 19-play touchdown drive, the Bulldogs’ longest march to a TD since 2002.

The team could use about five of those 19-play drives Saturday against high-scoring Old Dominion.

Ball control will be key against the 1-2 Monarchs, who scored 76 points in a rout of Howard last week and are averaging 41 points this season.

“We have to hold onto the ball and keep their offense off the field,” said Citadel coach Kevin Higgins, whose team also is 1-2. “We can’t make mistakes, and we may have to take a few more gambles in fourth-down scenarios, just to try to stay on the field.”

The Bulldogs had a 12-minute edge in time of possession in the win at Western Carolina, and for the season hold about a three-minute edge per game over their opponents.

The longer The Citadel has the ball, the less time on the field for ODU quarterback Taylor Heinicke, the Walter Payton Award winner as the top player in FCS last season.

With Heinicke at the controls, the Monarchs can score quickly. Of their 10 touchdowns last week against Howard, five came on drives that lasted fewer than five plays and two minutes each.

Heinicke hit 20 of 27 passes for 406 yards and four touchdowns against Howard, while playing little more than half the game. ODU’s spread attack was difficult for the triple-option Bulldogs to replicate in practice this week.

“That’s one of the biggest challenges we have,” Higgins said. “The speed our guys will see on the perimeter, the decisions their quarterback will make. He can drop back and look at one half of the field, and if it’s not there he’s able to get his eyes over the other half and make good decisions. That’s unusual.”

ODU’s defense, however, has been vulnerable. East Carolina and Maryland scored 52 and 47 points in victories this season, and even Howard ran 85 plays and gained 465 yards last week, despite five turnovers. In the first half, the Bison ran 51 plays and were 8 of 11 on third down.

Old Dominion is an FCS independent this season and ineligible for the playoffs as it prepares to join FBS Conference USA next season. In their last loss to an FCS team, the Monarchs fell by 49-35 to Georgia Southern in last year’s playoffs.

In that game, the Eagles ran 81 plays, rushed for 602 yards and had a 13-minute edge in time of possession.

A 17-point underdog today, The Citadel must couple ball-control offense with a defense that’s aggressive up front and sound in the secondary.

“We have to get pressure on their quarterback,” said Higgins, whose team has three sacks and two interceptions in three games. “We’ll mix things up as best we can, but you have to be stable on the back end. If you have one breakdown, they will take advantage of it.”

Perhaps The Citadel’s best hope is that the Monarchs, with their pending move to FBS, overlook the Bulldogs. Heinicke, for one, sounded after the Howard game like he’s already pointing toward an Oct. 19 game against Pitt.

“Now, hopefully we can win the next three games in a row, have a good bye week, and go up to Pittsburgh and put on a good show,” he said.

This is The Citadel’s first game against ODU, but not its first at Ballard Stadium, which was the site of the Bulldogs’ Oyster Bowl games against VMI. The Citadel is 3-1 against VMI at Ballard Stadium, the most recent game in 1994.

The Citadel will collect a guaranteed check of $250,000 for this game. The Bulldogs originally were to play East Carolina this season, but ODU worked out a three-way deal in which it would play at ECU and then host The Citadel.