GREENVILLE — As eight busloads of knobs cheered wildly from the stands late Saturday afternoon, Citadel defenders Dondray Copeland and Austin Harrell executed perfect backflips on the sideline.
Yes, Citadel football is fun again.
Freshman cadets bused in from Charleston made Furman’s homecoming feel like a Citadel home game, and the Bulldogs maintained course for a shot at a Southern Conference championship with a 38-17 rout of the rival Paladins before 12,124 fans at Paladin Stadium
Dominique Allen and Cam Jackson each scored two touchdowns as The Citadel dominated early and pulled away late to improve to 5-2 overall and 4-0 in the SoCon, its best start in league play since 1979.
“I believe that we will win!” the cadets chanted as linebackers Tevin Floyd and James Riley sealed the victory with interceptions in the final five minutes. Citadel coach Mike Houston and equipment manager Kevin Yeager were soaked by celebratory Gatorade showers, and school president Lt. Gen. John Rosa greeted Houston with a hug outside the locker room.
It was a far cry from the grim scene Johnson Hagood Stadium on Sept. 26, when the Bulldogs absorbed a 33-20 loss to rival Charleston Southern. Since then, they’ve won three straight and put themselves in position for a run at their first SoCon title since 1992.
“The kids have completely bought in to what we are doing, and are playing together and doing a great job,” said Houston. “And they are growing up.”
The Citadel is tied atop SoCon standings with defending champ Chattanooga (6-1, 4-0), which struggled to a 20-17 win at Wofford on Saturday. The Bulldogs have home games against Mercer and VMI (a combined 1-6 in SoCon play) before a Nov. 14 trip to Chattanooga, while the Mocs face Western Carolina and Mercer.
“We’ve got a great group of guys and an amazing coaching staff,” said Allen. “I think we love each other so much, and that’s what helps us win games, our unity and our family.”
A stout defense and strong-willed rushing attack help, as well. Jackson led Citadel rushers with 78 yards on just six carries, and seven Citadel players had at least 35 rushing yards as the Bulldogs totaled 388 yards on the ground. Wide receiver Brandon Eakins even got into the act, taking a reverse 35 yards for a score and a 21-7 lead in the first half.
The Citadel D held Furman to 295 yards, picked off two passes for a season total of 13, made four sacks and seven tackles for loss, and sent Furman QB Reese Hannon to the bench with a concussion.
“They did what they do very, very well,” said Furman coach Bruce Fowler, whose team is 3-4 overall, 1-2 in the SoCon. “And we didn’t play well enough to stop it.”
The Citadel led 24-7 at the half, but Furman chopped the lead to a TD at 24-17 on a 19-yard TD pass thrown by receiver Logan McCarter to Duncan Fletcher and a 20-yard field goal in the third quarter.
“I’m wondering then if we can win the game,” Houston said.
Allen responded by throwing a 50-yard pass to slotback Reggie Williams on third-and-7, setting up his own 1-yard TD for a 31-17 lead. Floyd’s interception led to the icing TD with 3:57 left, an 11-yard run by Jackson.
That sparked a final round of pushups from the 363 knobs on hand.
“Those guys really made a difference for us today,” Floyd said of the cadets. “They made more noise than the opposing team’s fans did. That definitely helped us.”
Citadel players dedicated the game to strength coach Donnell Boucher, who lost his grandmother and uncle in a house fire in Chicopee, Mass., last weekend.
Several Citadel players went out with injury during the game, including defensive end Joe Crochet, slotback Vinny Miller and right tackle Michael Mabry, but Houston said he didn’t think any of the injuries were major. Furman lost QB Hannon to a concussion, running back Triston Luke to an ankle injury and safety Richard Hayes to an injured shoulder.
Safety Kailik Williams led the Bulldogs with nine tackles and a sack, Floyd and Crochet also had sacks, and Noah Dawkins and Mitchell Jeter shared one.