Bulldogs put brakes on skid

Citadel running back, Terrence Martin breaks a tackle. (Douglas Rogers/Special to the Post and Courier)

That sound emanating from The Citadel’s locker room on Saturday — cheers, mixed with more than a few sighs of relief.

After riding a 3-0 start to a No. 10 national ranking, the Bulldogs had lost three straight to plummet from the polls and found themselves playing a must-win Parents Day game against struggling Western Carolina.

Despite allowing two Catamounts to rush for more than 100 yards, The Citadel held on for a 45-31 victory before 12,578 fans at Johnson Hagood Stadium. The Bulldogs (4-3 overall, 3-2 in the Southern Conference) now hit a much-needed open date with two weeks to figure out how to fix their injury-riddled defense.

“We needed this one as a football team,” Citadel coach Kevin Higgins said after quarterback Ben Dupree ran for 96 yards and two touchdowns. “That was a big one.”

The victory kept the Bulldogs — who have victories over top 10 teams Georgia Southern and Appalachian State — in the hunt for a winning record, and maybe even an FCS playoff berth. A loss to Western Carolina (1-6, 0-5), which has lost 19 straight in the SoCon, would have ruled out the playoffs and made a winning record improbable.

“We’ve got everything in front of us still,” said Higgins, whose team goes to No. 4 Wofford on Oct. 27. “That gives you a lot of hope and momentum.”

After managing just 17 points in losses to Chattanooga and Samford, the Bulldogs’ triple-option found the cure it needed in WCU’s defense, which had allowed an average of 602 rushing yards in losses to option teams Wofford and Georgia Southern.

The Citadel totaled 378 rushing yards, led by 116 yards and a TD by fullback Darien Robinson, his fifth 100-yard game of the season. Six Citadel backs averaged at least 4.8 yards per carry, and Rickey Anderson, backup QB Aaron Miller and Van Dyke Jones all had TD runs.

“The main thing was just executing,” said Dupree, who had his best game since going for 180 yards and two TDs in a 52-28 win over Appalachian State on Sept. 15. “We haven’t executed at all in the last three games. I feel like me and Aaron made the correct reads, the line blocked well and the backs ran hard. It was a team thing.”

But WCU’s offense was just as effective against The Citadel, which was without starting linebackers Carl Robinson (knee) and Rah Muhammad (ankle) and backup Yemi Oyegunle (groin). WCU running back Darius Ramsey ran for 118 yards, freshman quarterback Troy Mitchell went for 117 yards and two TDs, and running back Michael Vaughn scored twice.

“They ran the ball real well against us,” Higgins said. “Our backup linebackers haven’t gotten a lot of reps in practice yet. Those guys are only going to get better and better. They just need reps and they need work.”

A big hit from freshman Vinny Miller and some halftime adjustments on defense were key. It was 24-24 in the third quarter when Miller, a running back, laid out WCU kick returner Shaun Warren, igniting the crowd and his teammates.

Three plays later, defensive tackle Cam Mobley made his first career sack, forcing WCU’s first punt. The Citadel turned that into an 11-yard TD by Anderson for a 31-24 lead. The Bulldogs, tweaking their front and bringing a safety into the box, forced a second straight punt, and Robinson capped an 84-yard drive with a 6-yard run for a 38-24 lead.

Said Higgins, “That hit by Vinny really got our guys some momentum and really got our guys going.”