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Citadel's loss to Towson reveals crack in college football's 'unwritten rules'

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Citadel head coach Brent Thompson wasn't happy with some of the "insider information" on the triple option that Towson learned from Navy. Michael Pronzato/ Staff

Like most sports, college football is full of unwritten rules.

"Don't schedule a wedding on a fall Saturday in the South," might be one. "Don't hit the quarterback on a kneel-down play," could be another.

"Triple-option teams should stick together," is apparently another one, at least according to Citadel coach Brent Thompson.

Thompson couldn't help betraying a bit of irritation at his weekly news conference Tuesday as he reflected on a 44-27 loss at Towson on Sept. 29, a defeat that dropped the Bulldogs to 1-3 heading into this week's home game against No. 24 East Tennessee State.

Towson, 4-1 and ranked No. 18 in this week's FCS coaches poll, had not faced an option team like The Citadel since 2008, against Navy. The Tigers had shown a four-man defensive front in their first three games this season.

After a bye week to prepare for The Citadel, Towson's defense switched to a three-man front against the Bulldogs. Led by fullback Lorenzo Ward's 180 yards, The Citadel wound up rushing for a season-best 341 yards against the Tigers.

But it took the Bulldogs a while to make the adjustment; they trailed 21-3 in the first half.

Thompson said Towson had some help in preparing for the triple option, thanks to a spring visit by Towson coaches to nearby Navy, which also runs the triple option.

"They had some pretty good insider knowledge, I'll say that," Thompson said. "(Towson) sought out some pretty good defensive guys, guys that go against (the option) every single day. And as a triple-option guy, that's a little bit disappointing to me. But I understand it, and that's the way it goes."

Of course, offseason visits by coaching staffs to other programs to learn new schemes and concepts are nothing out of the ordinary. Thompson apparently feels that triple-option programs — Navy, Georgia Tech, Army and Navy are a few schools that use variations of the run-based offense — should be wary of sharing tips on how to stop the option attack.

"It used to be the unspoken rule, that's correct," Thompson said.

Former Citadel coach Charlie Taaffe, who ran the option while leading the Bulldogs to a Southern Conference title in 1992, said Tuesday that coaches sometimes have a handshake agreement not to share information with future foes. Absent that, he said, offseason research by coaches is part of the game.

Thompson said he was not surprised by Towson's change in defensive tactics.

"I knew they had done some spring research with some other staffs, and I heard about that," he said. "It's hard to wrap your head around it when they've shown nothing but a 4-3. But we prepared for it, and we've played (3-4) teams in the past ... I thought we had a pretty good plan going in, and we moved the football on them."

The Citadel had chances early against Towson, as quarterback Jordan Black missed a wide-open Raleigh Webb for what would have been a touchdown on the Bulldogs' second possession. A false-start penalty on second-and-6 at the Towson 14-yard line forced a field goal on The Citadel's third drive for a 14-3 deficit.

"The important thing is you've got to hang in there tight with them," Thompson said. "In order to get it going, you've got to feel them out. We had a pretty good idea after two or three series what their game plan was, and how much they had learned from the Naval Academy."

• Saturday's Parents Day game against ETSU will be The Citadel's first home game in 35 days, since a 29-28 overtime loss to Chattanooga on Sept. 8 ... The Citadel and Furman are the only two SoCon teams that have yet to play at least two home games.

• Former Citadel coach Mike Houston suffered just his third loss in 35 games at James Madison on Saturday. He compared the 27-24 loss to Elon to The Citadel's 31-23 loss to Chattanooga in 2015, in his second season with the Bulldogs. That game preceded a 23-22 upset at South Carolina and a playoff win at Coastal Carolina.

"That (loss to Chattanooga) was a crusing defeat, and the next week we are on top of the world," Houston said. "It's all in how you respond to it, and some of the biggest wins in my career have come after painful losses."

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

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