Citadel coach Brent Thompson made it clear early on Saturday that he was not afraid to gamble on fourth down.
He lost three of those bets, including one in the fourth overtime of Samford's 61-55 victory in The Citadel's Southern Conference opener at Seibert Stadium in Birmingham, Ala.
Tied at 55 in the fourth overtime, The Citadel faced fourth and 2 at the Samford 6-yard line. A 23-yard field goal would have put The Citadel ahead, 58-55, and forced Samford to score a touchdown to win it.
But Thompson went for it.
Hobbled quarterback Brandon Rainey was stopped a half-yard short. Samford, needing only a field goal, won it in the fourth OT on backup quarterback Liam Welch's 2-yard touchdown run.
"We're trying to end the game right there," said Thompson. "It gets to the point where you've got to gamble a little bit more and take some chances with it. You are on the road and in the fourth overtime, you've got to try to take a shot. We just ended up a half-yard short."
The Citadel (2-3, 0-1), ranked No. 25 in FCS, also ended up losing a game that it led by 14 points with eight minutes to play. The exhausting contest lasted four hours and four overtimes, and saw 924 yards (462 for each team), 175 plays and 116 points. The Citadel had the ball for almost an hour of game time — 57 minutes and 9 seconds to 17:51 for Samford (3-2, 2-0).
"It was a great game, and eventually somebody had to lose it," Thompson said. "Our guys fought their butts off out there. We were gassed, and I'm sure Samford was gassed there at the end. It was hot out there and when you put that all together, it was a tough game."
Rainey wore a brace on his left knee after missing last week's win over Charleston Southern. He was not nearly 100 percent, but still hit 6 of 7 passes for 196 yards and two touchdowns — 84 and 17 yards to Raleigh Webb.
Rainey also ran for three TDs, but he managed only 65 yards on 29 carries as The Citadel averaged just 2.8 yards on 95 rushing attempts.
"In the last overtime he seemed to be OK," Thompson said of Rainey, who was injured two weeks ago when a Georgia Tech player grabbed his facemask. "He seems to be fine, but I'm not sure he'll be 100 percent this season. But he's going to gut his way through it."
The Citadel had a 38-24 lead with 8:08 left after an interception by cornerback Jay Howard and a strip-sack by linebacker Willie Eubanks led to a 23-yard Jacob Godek field goal and a 1-yard Rainey TD.
But The Citadel could not make the lead stand up. Welch, in for the injured Chris Oladokun, threw a 5-yard TD pass to Michael Vice to make it 38-31 with 5:22 left.
And after The Citadel offense could not run out the clock, Bulldogs cornerback Lane Botkin whiffed on a tackle. That allowed Samford freshman AJ Toney to turn a short pass into a 67-yard TD to make it 38-38 with 1:43 left and force OT.
"We had our opportunity to get the guy on the ground, bump him out of bounds," Thompson said. "We had a guy there and couldn't make the play. Then, we should have been able to salt the game away, but we couldn't get it done."
The Citadel was 3 of 6 on fourth down, and each one of the misses hurt.
Thompson went for it on fourth and 2 from his own 33 on The Citadel's first possession, only to see fullback Clay Harris stopped short. That set up an 11-yard TD run by Oladokun.
The Citadel went 15 plays to the Samford 18 on its next drive, converting a fourth down along the way. But on fourth and 4 at the Samford 18, Thompson passed up a 35-yard field goal try to go for it. Fullback Emeka Nwanze was stopped short, and The Citadel came away with no points.
"We were trying to keep their offense off the field," Thompson said. "It's a high-octane offense, and they can put up points in a hurry."
Samford QBs Oladokun and Welch combined to hit 18 of 36 passes for 318 yards, with Welch throwing all three TD passes and Oladokun running for two scores.
The Citadel plays host next week to VMI (2-3, 1-1), which lost to Wofford 51-36 on Saturday.