When Samford's field goal bounced off the right upright in overtime, Citadel fullback Tyler Renew fell to his knees near midfield, as if in prayer.
“I was in disbelief,” Renew said after The Citadel clinched a second straight Southern Conference title with a wild 37-34 victory over Samford on Saturday at Johnson Hagood Stadium. “We've had so many games like that this year, and we continue to pull them out just by believing we can do it.”
The Bulldogs' latest bit of magic locked up at least a share of the SoCon title, the fourth in Citadel history, and an automatic bid to the FCS playoffs. The Citadel, ranked No. 6 by the FCS selection committee, is 9-0 for the first time in school history, and at 7-0 in the SoCon can grab the outright title with a win at VMI next week.
Renew, a senior playing in his final regular season football game at Johnson Hagood, turned in one of the great performances in Citadel history. He carried 45 times for 285 yards and three touchdowns, including TD runs of 58 and 55 yards.
But victory wasn't secured until The Citadel's Cody Clark booted a 34-yard field goal in OT, his third of the day. Samford kicker Reece Everett saw his answering 44-yard try drift right just enough to clang off the yellow goal post.
The sight of the bouncing ball on green grass — in the end zone directly in front of the Corps of Cadets — set off a riotous celebration among the 15,015 fans, the largest JHS crowd since 2006.
Citadel coach Brent Thompson grabbed onto of his assistants as Everette's kick sailed through the air.
“I saw it drift, drift, drift and the next thing you know it bounced off the upright back into the field of play,” said Thompson. “I said, 'Oh my Lord, he missed it!'”
Reece's miss sent Samford (6-3, 4-2) to the FCS playoff bubble, and capped the latest in a season full of comebacks for The Citadel.
Samford led by 34-24 with 6:17 to play when Devlin Hodges passed to Karel Hamilton for a 9-yard TD. Hodges hit 35 of 46 passes for 280 yards and two scores, and ran 13 times for 94 yards and two more TDs.
But this time, it was slotback Cam Jackson who rescued The Citadel. On third-and-7, he dashed back and forth across the field on a madcap 63-yard run, refusing to go down until he reached the Samford 6. Renew scored from 4 yards out, and The Citadel was back in it at 34-31 with 4:24 left.
“Just a gutsy play, a great player making a great play,” Renew said of Jackson, who totaled 100 yards and a TD on 12 carries. “I was watching, and I was like, 'Oh, what!' That was just Cam being Cam.”
The Citadel needed the ball back, though. As Samford faced third and 17 at its own 18, defensive coordinator Blake Harrell called for a three-man rush, with eight players dropping into coverage. Hodges had plenty of time to throw, but all his receivers were blanketed, and his pass fell incomplete with 2:54 left.
That was enough time for the Bulldogs to get to the Samford 26, from where Clark – the transfer from Middle Tennessee State who has been so clutch this season – kicked a 34-yard field goal to force overtime.
Afterward, Renew slumped in a chair outside the locker room. He had “RIP Mom” for his late mother written on one taped wrist, and “DIGG?” – Does it glorify God? – on the other. His 45 carries and 285 yards were both the second-most in Citadel history, and the 285 yards ranks No. 7 on the SoCon's all-time list.
“I'm tired,” he said. “But I'm happy. I'm so happy for the coaches, all the time and effort they put into this, and for the seniors. We've been through three coaches in four years, and have dedicated everything into this program. To see the results that are showing now, it's beyond words I can express.”
For Thompson, who came here two years ago with Mike Houston, a second straight league title was affirmation of the direction the pair chose for The Citadel.
“That's the reason why I stayed,” said Thompson, promoted to head coach last spring after Houston left for James Madison. “There was so much more to do with this group. They believed and fought their butts off, and for us to just pick up and leave, I didn't think that was fair.
“They have responded, they believe in this staff and each other, and they come in every day ready to work.”
Jackson, his knee throbbing from a direct hit during the game, thought about how far the Bulldogs have come.
“It's special, especially how far my class has come,” said the junior from Mobile, Ala. “Three head coaches in four years, it's been a long journey. I thank God, thank my boys and thank the Corps of Cadets.”