As Thomas Warren lined up for the game-winning field goal, he tried to empty his head of all thoughts.
The Citadel’s kicker tried not to think about the fact that his 37-yarder with 35 seconds left could beat third-ranked Georgia Southern, a six-time national champion. He ignored memories of the wind-blown kick his life-long friend missed last year against the Eagles, and of all the close losses The Citadel has endured against GSU.
“There’s nothing really going through your head,” Warren said afterwards. “You just have to go with what you’ve been doing the whole season. We practice this every day, so it’s just the same thing. Keep your head down, follow through and make the field goal.”
Warren followed his own advice, his third field goal of the game lifting the Bulldogs to their biggest victory in eight seasons under coach Kevin Higgins, a wild 23-21 upset of Georgia Southern before 12,299 fans at Johnson Hagood Stadium on Saturday night.
The 2-0 Bulldogs could not celebrate until GSU kicker Ryan Nowicki missed a 31-yard field goal as time ran out. But when Nowicki’s kick, after a high snap, sailed wide left, Citadel players sprinted onto the field in a joyous jumble.
“I was freaking out,” said Warren, a senior from Bishop England High School. “When I saw them miss it, it was just celebration everywhere. Mayhem.”
The mayhem was justified.
The win was The Citadel’s first over a top 10 FCS squad since 1997, when the Bulldogs went on the road to beat a No. 8-ranked East Tennessee State team by 23-20 in overtime. The Citadel had not beaten a top 10 team at home since a 10-6 win over No. 7 Furman in 1991. And the Bulldogs had not defeated a top 5 team since a 20-3 win over No. 1 Marshall in 1988.
“No question,” said Higgins when asked if it was his biggest win at The Citadel. “Beating the No. 3-ranked team in the country, at home. More importantly, for these players to have the experience of winning a close game against a real good football team — that is special.”
The heroes were many for The Citadel.
Warren also booted field goals of 42 and 39 yards, and celebrated in the locker room with Ryan Sellers, his classmate in grade school, high school and at The Citadel. Sellers’ own try at a game-winning field goal against GSU last year was blown wide of the goalpost as time ran out.
Receiver Dominic Jones caught a 26-yard TD pass from Ben Dupree and blocked a 31-yard field goal by Nowicki in the second quarter. Rickey Anderson also scored a TD, from 19 yards out on fourth down, as The Citadel turned two early fumbles by GSU into a quick 14-0 lead.
After GSU (1-1) converted a crazy 4th-and-6 — slotback Jerick McKinnon picked his own batted pitch out of the air and ran seven yards for the first down — and took a 21-20 lead on Ezayi Youyoute’s 1-yard TD with 3:13 left, backup QB Aaron Miller came to the rescue.
The Citadel got one first down on an iffy pass-interference call on 4th-and-3, and then Miller found Greg Adams for 20 yards on 4th-and-14. An 8-yard pass to Adams set up Warren’s game-winner.
Perhaps most importantly, The Citadel’s defense held GSU to 129 yards and eight first downs in the second half after giving up 235 yards and 15 first downs in the first 30 minutes. Eagles fullback Dominique Swope ran for just 31 of his 129 yards in the second half.
“It’s a great feeling, and there are any number of guys you can point out,” Higgins said. “But our defense did a great job of shutting down their option game in the second half.”
GSU coach Jeff Monken pointed to five fumbles, two lost, and two missed kicks by his team.
“We missed assignments, we missed tackles, we didn’t sustain blocks, we fumbled the ball (five) times,” he said. “We can’t line up and kick a field goal, we kicked the ball out of bounds twice. It’s a calamity of errors. What do you want? I’ve got nothing good to say.”
For his part, Higgins felt this win coming for almost a year, ever since last season’s 14-12 loss in Statesboro.
“Our guys wanted this game so bad, because they all recalled that moment on the field when we had a chance to win it last year,” he said. “I knew they would find a way to win it this year if they had a chance.”