ELON, N.C. — Two weeks into the season, Citadel fans have learned this much about their football team: The Bulldogs are not good enough to win the Colonial Athletic Association championship.
The Citadel fell to 0-2 with a 35-28 loss at Elon before 5,571 fans at Rhodes Stadium on Saturday afternoon, the Bulldogs' second straight one-score loss to a team picked to finish in the top four of the CAA.
The good news for Citadel coach Brent Thompson — he's not trying to win the CAA. The Bulldogs have two more games, starting at Georgia Tech next week, to figure out their issues before the Southern Conference gantlet begins.
"We're a good football team and this is going to pay off for us in the end," said Thompson, whose team lost, 28-21, to a ranked Towson squad last week. "We needed to have a little bit of adversity, and these tight losses will pay off for us. We're going to get over the hump soon.
"We've got to figure things out a little bit more on the defensive side, and get ahead of the game on offense. We haven't been able to get a lead on these guys in the last two games."
Elon quarterback Davis Cheek, in his second game back after an ACL injury, threw for 226 yards and a TD, and Jaylan Thomas ran for 135 yards and two scores. Brelynd Cyphers added 80 yards, including a 30-yard scamper for the winning TD with 6:07 to play.
The Phoenix (1-1), who managed just 19 rushing yards last week in a loss to North Carolina A&T, blew through the Bulldogs' defense for 255 rushing yards and outgained The Citadel, 481 yards to 225.
Three special-team gems — two blocked punts by safety Sean-Thomas Faulkner and a perfectly executed onside kick — set up three Citadel TDs as the Bulldogs somehow forged a 28-28 tie with 9:10 to play.
"Special teams had a great day, and coach (Turner) West had an outstanding plan," Thompson said. "That gave us a chance to win when really, things weren't going well for us offensively or defensively."
After a week spent at Lookup Lodge in Travelers Rest to avoid Hurricane Dorian, the Bulldogs played a sluggish first half and fell behind its old SoCon foe 21-7 at halftime and then 28-14 in the third quarter.
"I don't think (the week) had anything to do with the game," said Faulkner, who now has four blocked punts in his career. "That's become a yearly thing for us. We can practice wherever we're at and we're still going to show up to win."
Citadel QB Brandon Rainey scored three touchdowns and threw a 27-yard TD pass to Raleigh Webb to tie the game at 28 in the fourth quarter. But Rainey managed only 44 yards on 19 carries, often getting blown up before he could make the pitch on the option.
The Citadel totaled just 156 rushing yards on 3.1 yards per carry, the Bulldogs' fewest rushing yards since they managed just 146 in a 56-20 loss at Furman on Nov. 18, 2017.
"I had a lot of missed reads and I take a lot of blame for all that," said Rainey, who was 4-of-8 passing for 69 yards with one TD and one interception, on the game's final play.
"We haven't gotten to SoCon play yet, and we're playing good football. We just have to find a way to execute and I've got to get better, and we'll get over the hump."
Faulkner's first blocked punt set up a Rainey TD to tie the score at 7 in the second quarter, and the second led to Rainey's second TD and cut Elon's lead to 21-14 late in the third quarter.
"The coaches called a good scheme, and you just have to be relentless in your effort to get there," said Faulkner, who has three of the Bulldogs' five blocked punts over the last six games. "We saw some things they were doing that might lead to us getting one. It's different every week, you just have to watch film and see those weak points and attack them."
Rainey's 37-yard pass to Ryan McCarthy set up the QB's third TD, a 2-yard plunge, to cut Elon's lead to 28-21. Then came an onside kick executed perfectly by kicker Jacob Godek and recovered by defensive back Ryland Ayers at his own 49.
On third and 17, Rainey found Raleigh Webb at the back of the end zone for a 27-yard TD and an unlikely 28-28 tie with 9:10 left.
By then, though, The Citadel's defense looked gassed. Elon moved 75 yards in just seven plays, and Cyphers bounced a zone-read to the outside and outraced two Bulldogs to the end zone for the winning score.
"These two games, we've learned a lot about ourselves," Faulkner said. "We've seen where we're wrong and where we're right, and hopefully down the stretch we can pull it all together."
• The game featured two weird plays that ended up balancing each other out.
Elon lost a fumble early in the game at its own 36, but after a replay the play was ruled dead due to an inadvertent whistle. The Phoenix went on to drive 94 yards for their first TD.
"We had a short field there, and it was a fumble for sure," Thompson said. "Unfortunately, one of the officials on the other side of the field called an inadvertent whistle and gave them the ball back. That hurt. We had a chance to go in and score, so it's a 14-point swing in their favor."
More madness occurred early in the second half, with The Citadel down 21-7. The Bulldogs forced a punt, but returner Lane Botkin fumbled and Elon scooped-and-scored for an apparent TD.
But back at midfield, Elon's De'Sean McNair was whistled for a personal foul after getting in a scrap with Faulkner. McNair was ejected and the live-ball penalty wiped out the Elon TD for what would have been a 28-7 margin.
"It was going on during the play, it was explained to me," Thompson said. "The young man had thrown a punch at Sean-Thomas, and we still had possession of the ball at the time."
• Linebackers Willie Eubanks III and Airan Reed led The Citadel with 13 and 10 tackles, respectively ... The Bulldogs had five quarterback hurries, but no sacks on 23 pass attempts by Cheeks, who ran for 20 yards on two carries ... Fullback Clay Harris led the Bulldogs in rushing with 44 yards on 13 carries, and slotback Remus Bulmer averaged 6.8 yards on four tries.