Only 16 teams remain in the hunt for the FCS national championship. The two teams that make it to the title game on Jan. 9 in Frisco, Texas, will have slogged through three or four playoff games at the end of a long, hard regular season, a total of 15 or 16 college football games for the finalists.
That title game is “the light at the end of the tunnel,” said The Citadel quarterback Dominique Allen.
“I see it kind of like being a cadet at The Citadel,” Allen said this week. “You hate it while you are going through it, but there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. We’ve been playing football for a long time, for almost a third of the year. But we have to stay focused, and just keep our eyes on the prize.”
The light at the end of the tunnel will disappear for either The Citadel or Charleston Southern on Saturday, when the two Lowcountry teams meet in the second round of the FCS playoffs. Game time is at 1 p.m. at CSU’s Buccaneer Field.
The 9-3 Bulldogs will be playing their 13th game of the season, 10th in a row without a week off and fourth straight road game. The 9-2 Bucs, the No. 8 seed in the playoffs, earned a first-round bye last weekend and haven’t played since a 55-6 loss at Alabama on Nov. 21.
Will the Bulldogs be tired, or on a roll? Are the Bucs rested, or rusty?
Those are among the many questions to be answered Saturday, as Charleston Southern plays the first playoff game in its history. The Citadel is making its fourth playoff appearance; last week’s 41-38 win at Coastal Carolina was the Bulldogs’ first road win in the playoffs.
“I think it’s about who can come out and play it like it’s a normal game,” said CSU coach Jamey Chadwell. “One advantage (The Citadel) has is that they played in a playoff atmosphere last week, and they’ve probably been in that atmosphere the last three or four games, not knowing if they were in or not.
“We do have the advantage of having some off days, but when it’s this late in the year, teams are teams.”
The Bucs have won their last three meetings with the Bulldogs, including a 33-20 win at The Citadel’s Johnson Hagood Stadium. In that game, CSU outscored The Citadel by 27-3 in the second half and held the Bulldogs to 15 rushing yards after halftime.
CSU cornerback Troy McGowens and spur linebacker Zach Johnson had eight tackles each in that game, and Johnson forced a fumble. Defensive end Anthony Ellis picked off a pass as the Bucs forced three turnovers.
Bulldogs coach Mike Houston, whose team ran for 524 yards last week at Coastal Carolina, said both teams have changed since that game.
“A different time and place for both teams, and both teams have improved a lot since then,” he said.
Chadwell said he doesn’t anticipate his defense changing much in its game plan to confront the Bulldogs’ triple-option. “They kind of dictate what you do and how you line up,” he said. “You just have to be better than them.”
But he said the Bucs will make adjustments on offense to account for The Citadel’s improving defense. In the first meeting, CSU running backs Darius Hammond and Mike Holloway both went over the 100-yard mark, with Holloway scoring three touchdowns.
“They are playing really well on defense,” Chadwell said of The Citadel. “We have to come up with some ways to get them in some mismatches. If we don’t, there front seven in particular is playing very well.”