Brent Thompson won his first 10 games as The Citadel's football coach in 2016. It was the best start for a coach in school history and the longest win streak ever for a Bulldogs team, leading to a second straight Southern Conference championship.
After last season, Thompson's 15 wins still ranked as the most ever for a Citadel coach after two years.
But as the Bulldogs host No. 24-ranked East Tennessee State on Saturday (in their first home game in 35 days), recent trends are more troubling. Off to a 1-3 start this season, The Citadel has lost six of its last seven games and nine of its last 12 dating back to last season.
With an open date last week before taking on ETSU (5-1), Thompson said he's contemplating no major changes as the Bulldogs prepare for the home stretch of their season, which will include four home games and three on the road.
"We will certainly double down on everything we are doing here," said Thompson, now 16-11 in his third season at The Citadel. "When you get in trouble is when you start to doubt yourself.
"This is pretty much the same staff that went 10-0, and finished 10-2 (in 2016)," he said. "We've got a pretty good idea. We just need to be able to continue to grow our roster, develop our players and do what we do. We know that it will eventually pay off."
And he may be right.
Counting ETSU, the first five opponents on The Citadel's schedule are a combined 21-7, with Wofford, Towson and ETSU in the FCS top 25. The next four foes — VMI, Furman, Western Carolina and Samford — are a combined 6-14.
Here are four keys to a Citadel win against ETSU:
First-year ETSU coach Randy Sanders was the offensive coordinator at Florida State when the No. 1-ranked Seminoles defeated The Citadel, 37-12, in 2014. Sanders is a little fuzzy on the score (he remembered it as 37-7 this week), but recalls how much time the Bulldogs' triple-option offense took off the clock — 33 minutes and 35 seconds, to be exact.
"I think a lot of (FSU) fans were disappointed," he said this week. "... As good as that football team was at Florida State, (The Citadel) was able to limit us to only nine possessions against our defense. It makes you execute when you get your opportunities, and it makes you stay locked in from a mental standpoint."
The Bulldogs, second in the SoCon in time of possession, could use another clock-eating performance to keep the ball away from ETSU's improving offense, which ran up 217 rushing yards and 244 passing yards in a 45-0 trouncing of Gardner-Webb last week.
What a rush
ETSU ranks first in the SoCon and third in FCS in rushing defense, allowing 70.5 yards per game and just 2.1 yards per carry. The top three players in the SoCon in tackles for loss are all Buccaneers — linebacker Dylan Weigel, linebacker Jared Folks and 6-5, 271-pound lineman Nasir Player, with a combined 26.5 tackles for loss.
On the other hand, the Bucs have yet to play the SoCon's No. 1 rushing team, Wofford, and two of their three SoCon foes have been pass-happy VMI and Chattanooga.
The Bulldogs, with fullback Lorenzo Ward leading the SoCon with 99.8 rushing yards per game, will have to find the holes in ETSU's run defense.
ETSU began the season with Logan Marchi, a transfer from Temple, unseating veteran starter Austin Herink at quarterback. But Sanders turned back to Herink with the Bucs trailing Furman by 27-6 on Sept. 22.
Herink rallied ETSU to a 29-27 victory over Furman, and has started in wins over Chattanooga and Gardner-Webb. In the last three games, Henrik has hit 37 of 63 passes for 457 yards with two touchdowns and one interception.
Good news for The Citadel defense: Herink, averaging 2.6 yards per carry, doesn't seem to be quite as effective running the ball as Towson QB Tom Flacco, who torched the Bulldogs for 185 rushing yards and two TDs in a 44-27 loss two weeks ago.
The Bulldogs play just their second home game of the season, and first in 35 days, before what should be a large Parents Day crowd. They can't wait.
"It feels like a long time and it is a long time," Thompson said. "We're definitely excited to get back home and get that feeling inside us."
The Citadel 28, ETSU 24