As the sun went down behind the mountains around Western Carolina's Whitmire Stadium on Nov. 3, it was easy to wonder about the future of Citadel football.
Third-year coach Brent Thompson had to suspend five players before that game, several of them team leaders, and the Bulldogs stumbled through a disjointed first half on the way to a 24-10 halftime deficit against a struggling WCU team.
At that point, The Citadel had lost five of its first seven games of the 2018 season, and 11 of its last 15 dating to 2017.
"When you have a losing record, everything can spiral out of control," said quarterback Brandon Rainey. "We lost a bunch of close games, but our guys bounced back. We got down at halftime at Western Carolina, and nobody quit."
Rainey, the sophomore who made his starting debut at QB that day at Western Carolina, ran for 188 yards and a TD as the Bulldogs rallied for a 38-24 victory. The next week, Rainey piled up 217 yards and accounted for two TDs as The Citadel came from behind again for a 42-27 win over Samford.
Follow that up with an attention-grabbing halftime standoff with No. 1 Alabama and a streak-snapping victory over rival Charleston Southern, and the outlook on Citadel football feels a lot different than it did on that Saturday afternoon in Cullowhee, N.C.
"I've been exhausted at the end of seasons," Thompson said after the season-ending 43-14 win over CSU. "I've wanted seasons to end. But this is not one of those seasons. We were able to play the month of November kind of like the way we knew we should have been able to play.
"Part of it was just being young and growing up, and the other part was finding a little bit of an identity and having some guys step up."
Chief among those would be Rainey, who rushed for 529 yards and three touchdowns over the final four games of the season, averaging 132.2 yards per game. He only threw 15 passes over that stretch, but hit eight of them for 168 yards and two touchdowns. With two more seasons to play at QB, the former fullback looks like a rising star in the triple-option offense.
"We've got a great leader in Brandon Rainey, who emerged during the season," said all-Southern Conference safety Aron Spann III. "I feel like with the team in his hands, he'll do well with it."
Rainey will have most of the offense back with him. All-Southern Conference lineman Tyler Davis is gone, and junior fullback Lorenzo Ward was honored on senior day and is unlikely to return.
But four of the five starters on the line are back, along with receivers Raleigh Webb and Ryan McCarthy, freshman fullback Clay Harris and slotbacks Dante Smith and Keyonte Sessions.
The defense loses four senior starters, but had to rely on plenty of true freshmen this season, including defensive backs Chris Beverly and Joshua Bowers, bandit Destin Mack and linemen Mason Kinsey and Marquise Blount.
Those five are among at least 11 true freshmen who played in more than four games and won't be able to take a redshirt year. Others include fullback Harris, all-SoCon punter Matthew Campbell, slotback Nkem Njoku, defensive back Ryland Ayers, linebacker Joe Douglas and linebacker Kyler Estes.
Among the key questions for spring practice will be the battle for backup QB behind Rainey. True freshmen Javonte Middleton and Jalen Smith redshirted this season. Goose Creek product Darique Hampton and walk-on Brian Murdaugh also are on the roster at QB. McCarthy played quarterback last spring before moving to receiver this season, and also will play for The Citadel's baseball team next season.
The Citadel is expected to sign most of its 2019 recruiting class during the early signing period, which begins Dec. 19. The Citadel's first three games of 2019 are against Towson and Elon, two FCS playoff teams this season, and Georgia Tech, seeking a new coach after Paul Johnson retired. The 2019 schedule also includes another game with Charleston Southern.
"I'm really optimistic about our future," Rainey said after the CSU game. "I wish we were just starting now."