With an overflow crowd piled six or seven rows deep behind the fences at Buccaneer Field, Charleston Southern looked a bit stage-struck early in its FCS playoff debut Saturday.
Quarterback Austin Brown wasn’t right from the start, getting sick pre-game, missing on all eight of his passes and turning the ball over twice before he was knocked out of the game. Backup quarterback Kyle Copeland lasted only one play, and all-Big South tackle Eric Austell didn’t play at all.
“Worst-case scenario,” said CSU’s third-team quarterback, Danny Croghan.
It got better. The Bucs rode two scintillating touchdown runs by Mike Holloway and a Blue Swarm defense that forced five turnovers to a 14-6 win over The Citadel before a record crowd of 8,451.
CSU (10-2), champion of the Big South Conference, lived up to its No. 8 seed by making the elite eight of the FCS playoffs. The Bucs advance to the quarterfinals to play at No. 1 seed Jacksonville State, a 41-35 overtime winner over Chattanooga.
The Citadel (9-4) ended its own historic season — first Southern Conference championship and playoff bid since 1992 — in bitter fashion, with a fourth straight loss to Charleston Southern, and second this season.
“It stinks, and it’s not the way we envisioned it,” said Citadel coach Mike Houston, whose team was picked to finish seventh in the SoCon. “But I told our kids, in two years we’ve completely changed the culture, and I’ll remember them for completely changing the expectations for Citadel football. Obviously, they leave a legacy where things will be different when we start next season.”
As good as the Bulldogs were this season, they could not solve the riddle of CSU’s defense. A week after rushing for 524 yards in a 41-38 win at Coastal Carolina, the Bulldogs could muster only 199 rushing yards on Saturday. That was actually more than the Bulldogs ran for (181) in a 33-20 loss to CSU in September.
Six Citadel turnovers on Saturday included five fumbles and an interception under pressure from quarterback Dominique Allen.
“They started to stress out and lose focus during the game,” said CSU linebacker Solomon Brown, who had 15 tackles and stripped the ball away from Allen on one play. “We kept punching and squeezing them all day, and that was our game plan. We do a lot of punching and squeezing of the tackles, which condenses their gaps. If we can get them to bounce (outside) and get uncomfortable, then we swarm to the ball.”
The Bulldogs also hurt themselves with eight penalties, most of them for false starts or illegal shifts that put their triple-option offense behind schedule.
“That’s what you fear,” Houston said. “We had so many opportunities early, and when you don’t take advantage against a good team, it will come back to bite you in the rear end.”
With CSU quarterbacks Austin Brown and then Copeland knocked out of the game in the first half, Holloway rode to the rescue with touchdown runs of 41 and 32 yards for a 14-3 halftime lead. Croghan, a redshirt junior from Bishop England High School, played most of the game at quarterback, hitting 3 of 6 passes for 37 yards.
“Something was wrong with Austin in pre-game,” CSU coach Jamey Chadwell said. “I don’t know what was going on, if he was too worked up or anxious, but he wasn’t himself. He was missing guys who were wide open, and then he got banged up.”
CSU’s defense made the halftime lead stand up, holding The Citadel to a 39-yard Eric Goins field goal that made it 14-6 with 12:14 left. The Bulldogs reached the CSU 36 in the final minutes, but Brown stopped Allen on fourth-and-3 with just 2:30 left.
Post-game celebrations were mild by CSU standards, with no brooms on hand as they had been for the Bucs’ win at Johnson Hagood Stadium. After all, the Bucs have more football to play.
“Maybe myself and our team learned that sometimes those celebrations aren’t the best way,” Chadwell said. “We learned how to handle ourselves in a better way ... But right now, we don’t want this journey to end.”