Citadel defense key to BullDogs’ turnaround

The Citadel’s defense swarms VMI’s Quan Myers during a 35-14 win on Saturday. (Paul Zoeller/Staff)

In one breath Saturday afternoon, Citadel coach Mike Houston used the words “embarrassing” and “dominating” to describe the Bulldogs’ defense.

The first term applied to The Citadel’s defensive numbers last season. The second described the Bulldogs’ performance in Saturday’s 35-14 win over VMI, when The Citadel forced six turnovers and turned two of them into defensive touchdowns.

The difference between “embarrassing” and “dominating” is the difference in Citadel football in Houston’s second season, as the Bulldogs have gone from 5-7 overall and 3-4 in the Southern Conference in 2014 to 7-2 and 6-0 this season. The Citadel, ranked No. 20, already has clinched a share of the SoCon title, its first since 1992, and can grab an automatic bid to the FCS playoffs with a win Saturday at No. 9 Chattanooga.

“We were decent on offense last year, and embarrassing on defense last year,” Houston said after the VMI game. “That’s the biggest turnaround on our team, the improvement on that side of the ball.”

The numbers are stark.

The Citadel has gone from seventh in the SoCon in scoring defense last year (28.7 ppg) to third this season (19.8 ppg), and has seen similar improvement in total defense (442 yards per game to 325), rushing defense (195 ypg to 158) and pass defense (247 ypg to 166). The Bulldogs have intercepted more than five times as many passes (17) as they did last year (three) and have taken four of those picks back for touchdowns. They’ve forced twice as many turnovers (24) and made almost twice as many sacks (23) as they did last year.

The Bulldogs have held four of their last five opponents to less than 300 yards total offense, and have given up just five touchdown passes all season, ranking third in FCS.

“They are so physical,” said Chattanooga coach Russ Huesman, whose team beat The Citadel, 34-14, last year. “They will beat you up in how they tackle. Their scheme is excellent, but the bottom line is they get you on the ground.

“We’ve played good defense here at Chattanooga for a long time, and that’s been our philosophy, to be physical and get people on the ground when you are supposed to. But I think it’s the physicalness of their defense that’s so impressive.”

The key to the improvement, senior linebacker James Riley said, is simply having another year of experience in the system devised by Houston and defensive coordinator Maurice Drayton.

“The big difference is in speed and the understanding of the defense,” said Riley, who leads the Bulldogs with 70 tackles. “We’re making plays, forcing turnovers. That’s been a key factor in how we are playing.”

Veterans such as Riley and junior linebacker Tevin Floyd (65 tackles), senior tackle Mitchell Jeter (11 tackles for loss, eight sacks) and junior safety Malik Diggs (60 tackles) have led the way. In the secondary, grad-student transfer cornerback Mariel Cooper steadied a unit that struggled last year, and sophomore corner Dee Delaney emerged as a star with five interceptions.

A crop of younger players also has emerged. Sophomore safety Kailik Williams is third on the team with 64 tackles, and redshirt freshman Quinlan Washington had a breakout game at bandit linebacker against VMI. He intercepted two passes, taking one back 72 yards for a touchdown, and forced a crucial turnover with a strip-sack on a blitz, and forms a formidable tandem at bandit along with junior Dondray Copeland.

It’s a unit that has the attention of Chattanooga’s Huesman. Last year, his son, Mocs quarterback Jacob Huesman, ran for 81 yards and a touchdown, and hit 11 of 17 passes for 163 yards and two more scores in the Mocs’ win.

“They are mean,” Huesman said of the Bulldogs. “There’s no question, there are some mean dudes running around on that side of the ball.”

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