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The CItadel's Cameron Roberts runs onto the field during the Military Classic of the South between VMI and The Citadel last weekend at Johnson Johnson Hagood Stadium.  VMI won 34-21. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Citadel football coach Brent Thompson didn't hesitate when asked the question this week. Is Saturday's game against Western Carolina a must-win for the Bulldogs?

"Yes," he said.

And the Southern Conference standings make it clear why that is so. At 2-4 overall and 0-2 in the league, the Bulldogs can ill afford another loss if they fancy themselves a SoCon contender. That's especially true against Western Carolina (1-4, 0-2), which along with The Citadel and ETSU (2-4, 0-3) is one of three SoCon teams that have yet to win a league game.

But for Thompson, now 22-18 in his fourth season at The Citadel, it goes deeper than that. The Bulldogs have to find their way back to the kind of football that won them three of their final four games last season, and score an upset of the ACC's Georgia Tech this season.

"We've got to get back to doing what we do," said Thompson, whose team hosts WCU at 2 p.m. Saturday at Johnson Hagood Stadium.

The Bulldogs found themselves doing what they don't normally do in last week's 34-21 loss to VMI, The Citadel's first loss to its military-school rival since 2002.

The Citadel's triple-option offense managed just 78 rushing yards against VMI, its lowest since 2009. Quarterback Brandon Rainey tried 34 passes, the team's most since 2009, and netted only one yard rushing on 15 carries, including five sacks for 16 yards in losses.

That reduced The Citadel's average to 224.8 rushing yards per game, third in the SoCon but not nearly enough for a triple-option team. In total offense, the Bulldogs are dead last in the league at 330.3 yards per game.

"We've seen some pretty good defenses, and an FBS team in there as well," Thompson said. "And we've seen two teams that really stacked the box against us in Samford and VMI. We had 200 yards passing in both those games, which is unheard of for us.

"I'm glad to see our vertical passing game get better, but that is at a sacrifice of our run game."

The Citadel was without starting fullback Clay Harris against VMI, but the offensive line has been healthy, with the same five starting every game.

Rainey, who averaged 132 rushing yards in four games after becoming the starter last year, averaged 93.3 over the first three games this season, including 169 yards on 33 carries against Towson.

But since injuring his knee against Georgia Tech, Rainey has missed one game entirely and averaged just 33 rushing yards in two games since his return.

On defense, The Citadel will have to deal with another in a long string of effective quarterbacks. WCU senior Tyrie Adams was the preseason SoCon offensive player of the year, and is back in his starting role after being suspended for two games.

Adams is a dual threat, averaging 170 yards passing and 64.3 rushing, and 6-0, 210-pound running back Connell Young had 217 rushing yards in a 60-36 loss to Chattanooga.

The Catamounts' defense has struggled, allowing 38.2 points and 248.2 rushing yards per game. WCU's only win is by 20-17 over Division II North Greenville.

Saturday's game is Military Appreciation and First Responders Appreciation Day, with a flyover of Blackhawk helicopters slated just before the 2 p.m. kickoff. There will also be a military contract ceremony for Citadel cadets, a POW/MIA seat dedication and recognition of service members from all branches of the military.

Reach Jeff Hartsell at 843-937-5596. Follow on Twitter @Jeff_fromthePC