MACON, Ga. — On a visit to Brent Thompson's office last week, Rod Johnson had a question for The Citadel's head football coach.
"He wanted to know when was the last time The Citadel had returned a kickoff for a touchdown," Thompson said outside a jubilant Citadel locker room.
The answer, as of Saturday night, is with 57 seconds left in the Bulldogs' wild and crazy 38-31 win at Mercer before 11,772 fans at Five Star Stadium.
That's when Johnson crossed the goal line at the end of a 94-yard kickoff return for a game-winning touchdown that erased the heartbreak of narrow losses to Southern Conference foes Wofford and Chattanooga to start the season. The Citadel is now 1-2 overall and 1-2 in the SoCon.
"It felt like that play instilled hope into our team," said Johnson, a junior slotback from Ninety Six whose 5-yard TD run with 4:47 left gave The Citadel a 31-24 lead. "Our whole motto as a team is, no matter what the circumstances are, we're never going to give up. Even when we are down, we know that we can come back, and we showed that today."
The Bulldogs piled up 308 rushing yards, including 139 yards and a TD from slotback Grant Drakeford, to erase deficits of 17-7 and 24-14 to Mercer (2-1, 1-1), which was coming off an upset victory over SoCon favorite Samford.
Quarterback Jordan Black, from nearby Vidalia, ran for 61 yards and a TD and hit 5 of 10 passes for 167 yards, including a 77-yard TD strike to Raleigh Webb.
Thompson has been part of two SoCon titles at The Citadel, but could not recall a bigger victory under the circumstances.
"We needed this one about as badly as we've ever needed anything," he said after Citadel fans serenaded the Bulldogs with chants of "C-I-T-A-D-E-L!"
"This is probably the single most important win I've had since I've been here, just because we've been so close the first two times."
What went right
Mercer's 30-24 win at Samford last week was built on the running of Tee Mitchell (103 yards) and the passing of redshirt freshman QB Robert Riddle, who threw for 316 yards and a TD.
But The Citadel's defense shut off half of that duo, holding Mitchell to 52 yards and the Bears to 32 net rushing yards, sacking Mercer quarterbacks five times for 48 yards in losses. Riddle threw for 347 yards and three scores, but was picked off by Citadel cornerback Khafari Buffalo to set up Drakeford's 4-yard TD to tie the score at 24-24 in the fourth quarter.
Linebacker Willie Eubanks had seven tackles and a sack, while linebacker Noah Dawkins had 1½ sacks and 2½ tackles for loss. Defensive tackle Joseph Randolph also had a sack and 2½ tackles for loss, while brothers Jordan and Jalon Williams combined for 1½ sacks.
What went wrong
The Citadel's victory will gloss over some mental and physical errors that could have cost the Bulldogs dearly. A false start on first and goal at the Mercer 3-yard line in the third quarter spoiled a TD chance and forced the Bulldogs to settle for a 27-yard Jacob Godek field goal and a 24-17 deficit in the third quarter.
The Bulldogs also dropped two potential interceptions, and had a another pick wiped out by a pass interference call on Mercer's game-tying drive in the fourth quarter. That set up Riddle's 8-yard TD pass to David Durden to tie the score at 31-31 with just 71 seconds left.
Mercer had a 17-7 lead late in the first half when kickoff return hero Rod Johnson made a mistake, stepping out of bounds after fielding a kickoff at The Citadel's 4 with just 90 seconds left in the half.
Seeking more points, Mercer coach Bobby Lamb called a timeout before the Bulldogs' third-and-six play with 56 seconds left. Drakeford ran for 15 yards and a first down (he was ruled down before an apparent fumble). On the next play, Black found Webb behind the defense for a 77-yard TD with just 15 seconds left, cutting Mercer's lead to 17-14 at the half.
"We really caught the momentum with that touchdown," Thompson said. "We battled our butts off all the way through."
Thompson said The Citadel could get "back on the map" in the SoCon with a win at Mercer, and the Bulldogs think they did.
"I felt like this was a game to tell people we are still in the hunt," Black said in between hugs and photos with family. "We're going to play hard, and every week's a toss-up. But we're going to come to play."