Biggest game of Higgins era?

The last time Georgia Southern visited Johnson Hagood Stadium, receiver Greg Adams and the rest of The Citadel Bulldogs fumbled nine times in a 20-0 loss. (File photo). 120

The week began with expressions of mutual admiration from both sides.

“They are a great football program,” Citadel defensive end Bay Amrhein said of Georgia Southern, which comes to Johnson Hagood Stadium tonight ranked No. 3 in the nation in FCS. “We’ve got a lot of respect for them.”

For his part, Eagles coach Jeff Monken talked about his ties to and respect for Citadel offensive coordinator Bob Bodine and quarterbacks coach Craig Candeto. Bodine and Monken worked together at GSU, and Candeto was Navy’s quarterback when Monken was an assistant to Paul Johnson there.

“Their staff does a tremendous job,” Monken said. “They coach those kids hard, and they’ve got a great group of kids who battle every week. They play with a tremendous amount of pride, for their school and each other.”

But as the week has worn on, a bit of an edge has crept into the proceedings. Monken, or whoever tweets for him, took to Twitter to urge GSU fans to out-number Citadel fans at Johnson Hagood.

“Eagle Nation..any chance we can out-draw the Citadel for fans on Saturday?” @CoachJeff Monken tweeted Thursday night. “I believe we can. Get on the Eagle train & ride to Charleston!”

Some Citadel fans took that as an insult, but it might also reflect some genuine concern on Monken’s part. Though Georgia Southern opened with a 58-0 whipping of Jacksonville, recent history suggests the Bulldogs won’t roll over for the Eagles.

GSU has won the last five meetings by an average of 7.2 points, including an epic 44-41 triple-overtime win at Johnson Hagood in 2008. Since both teams returned to the triple-option offense two years ago, GSU has won 20-0 in 2010 (the Bulldogs fumbled nine times) and 14-12 last year (the Bulldogs missed a field goal at the buzzer).

With the Bulldogs off to a 1-0 start after last week’s 49-14 win over Charleston Southern, tonight’s game shapes up as perhaps the biggest in coach Kevin Higgins’ eight seasons at The Citadel.

The Bulldogs are 0-14 against FCS top 10 teams since Higgins took over in 2005, and have not beaten a top 10 squad since a 23-20 overtime win against No. 8 East Tennessee State in 1997. Indeed, a win tonight would be The Citadel’s biggest at home since the Bulldogs knocked off No. 1 Marshall by 20-3 in 1988.

But, Higgins reminds, it is just the second game of the season. SoCon power Appalachian State and BCS foe N.C. State loom in the next two weeks.

“It’s a very, very big game, an important game,” said Higgins, who is 1-6 against GSU with a 24-21 win in 2006. “It’s a tremendous opportunity for us. But this game is not the season. Whether we win or lose, there’s a lot of football left to be played.”

If nothing else, the game should go quickly. GSU hit 0 of 8 passes against Jacksonville, but ran for 557 yards. New quarterback Ezayi Youyoute went for 164 yards and three scores, while fullback Dominique Swope had 104 yards and three TDs.

The Citadel attempted only six passes against CSU, but its version of the option was nearly as powerful, racking up 479 yards on the ground. Fullback Darien Robinson had 120 yards and a TD, and slotback Rickey Anderson scored three times.

Georgia Southern’s defense will be just as difficult to match. All-SoCon tackle Brent Russell will test The Citadel’s guards, Keith Carter and Jim Knowles, and the Eagles’ linebackers and secondary are a speedy bunch.

To pull off the upset, Higgins said, the Bulldogs must take care of the ball — they fumbled six times against CSU — and take it away from the Eagles a couple of times.

“Interceptions, balls on the ground, special teams making plays,” he said. “We have to find two or three more possessions to give ourselves a shot.”

Today’s game is Military Appreciation Day, with $6 tickets for anyone with a military ID, a halftime performance by the Parris Island Marine Band and a military display outside the stadium.