Davidson was The Citadel’s first opponent this season, but was not the team that occupied the Bulldogs’ attention for most of the summer.
That honor went to Western Carolina, a preseason favorite in the SoCon and a team that racked up 633 yards of offense in a win over The Citadel last season.
“We spent a lot of time this summer on this game plan,” admitted Citadel coach Mike Houston.
“We’ve had this game circled ever since last year,” added receiver Rudder Brown.
All of that planning went to good use Saturday night, as the Bulldogs ground out their biggest win of the Mike Houston era, a 28-10 victory over WCU before 8,048 fans at Johnson Hagood Stadium.
The Citadel is 2-0 for the first time since 2012, and will enjoy a 1-0 record in the SoCon until at least Oct. 10, when the Bulldogs play host to Wofford. It’s a darn sight better than last year’s 0-3 start, second-year coach Houston will tell you.
“It’s a huge win,” said Houston, now 7-7 at The Citadel. “I kept talking about the improvement our team has made over the last year, and how hard we worked over the spring and summer. I’ll be honest with you, we spent a lot of time this summer on this game plan. And for our kids to come out and play the way they did tonight, it’s a very rewarding win.”
The Bulldogs were not perfect, overcoming four fumbles (two lost, one recovered for a Citadel touchdown) and an interception. But the defense was stingy inside its own 5-yard line and bottled up Catamounts quarterback Troy Mitchell, limiting him to 26 yards rushing and picking him off twice.
“It started during the summer,” said senior defensive tackle Mitchell Jeter, who had two tackles for loss and a sack in key situations. “We came together as a team, came together at camp and we knew what we had to do — come out here and play together as a team.”
After accounting for 422 yards of total offense in last year’s 29-15 win over The Citadel, Mitchell was held to 213 yards Saturday, hitting 19 of 40 passes for 187 yards and no touchdowns. He was picked off twice by Citadel cornerback Dee Delaney. Running back Detrez Newsome did have 121 yards and a TD.
“Western Carolina has some of the better skill we’ll see in this league,” Houston said. “For our guys to come out and match them up and play with physicality and intensity all night long, that’s exactly what we needed.”
Citadel quarterback Dominique Allen ran 22 times for 99 yards and two touchdowns, and the Bulldogs pounded out 341 yards rushing and 446 total, holding the ball more than 10 minutes longer than the Catamounts. Allen’s 58-yard pass to Wando High School product Rudder Brown was key, setting up Evan McField for the 3-yard TD that made it 21-10 early in the fourth quarter.
But Allen was quick to credit the defense for this win.
“They were huge,” Allen said. “Coach Houston told us we’d have a more physical defense this year, and that’s how they played. They saved our end a lot tonight, and without their effort we would not have won the game tonight.”
The Citadel held WCU to three points on two trips inside the 5-yard line in the first half, with Jeter making a huge stop on fourth and 1 at the Bulldogs’ 2.
Down 7-3 at the half, WCU took a 10-7 lead in the third quarter as Newsome ran 45 yards to the 8, then scored from the 4. The Citadel came right back with a 12-play, 65-yard drive for a 14-10 lead, but needed a bit of luck to score. Receiver Jorian Jordan recovered a fumble in the end zone after Allen and slotback Vinny Miller couldn’t connect on a pitch.
“I nearly had a heart attack on that play,” Allen said. “I completely take responsibility for that. That was all my fault, a complete misread.”
The fourth quarter belonged to the Bulldogs, with Brown’s 58-yard catch and a botched fourth-down snap setting up Citadel TDs for a 28-10 lead. An 11-play drive took six minutes off the clock, but was foiled when Vinny Miller lost a fumble.
“We felt if we could play our kind of game deep into the fourth quarter, they’d have a hard time hanging with us,” Houston said.