If there was a sadder postgame locker room in the Southern Conference than The Citadel's last week, it might have been Western Carolina's.
The Catamounts, seeking to snap a four-game skid, blew a 15-point second-half lead at No. 25 East Tennessee State and lost by 45-43 — in triple overtime.
"I don't know if I've ever walked into a locker room and felt so hurt for a bunch of players as I did Saturday," Western Carolina coach Mark Speir said this week. "They fought their butts off and played hard. They were having fun and believing all the way to the very end. And when it came down to it, we couldn't make the play when we had to make the play."
There's plenty of frustration to go around as The Citadel (2-5, 2-4 Southern Conference) travels to Western Carolina (3-5, 1-5) for a 3:30 p.m. game Saturday at Whitmire Stadium in Cullowhee, N.C.
Western Carolina has lost five straight games after a 3-0 start to the season, despite averaging 35.5 points per game. The Catamounts have scored 38, 28, 46 and 43 points in losses this season.
The Citadel, meanwhile, continued a string of close defeats in a 28-17 loss to Furman, a game the Bulldogs trailed by four points in the final minutes. Three other SoCon defeats were by a total of 11 points.
"We've got to make sure we pay attention to the details," said Citadel quarterback Jordan Black. "The margin for error in these games is so slim. We just need to make some of the plays that we haven't been able to make in some of these close losses."
Here are four keys to Saturday's game:
Western Carolina quarterback Tyrie Adams limped into Johnson Hagood Stadium on a bad knee last season and hit 14 of 21 passes for 133 yards and three touchdowns, and ran for 50 yards on seven carries, in a 31-19 victory.
By Adams' statistical standards, it was a pedestrian game. The 6-2, 185-pound redshirt junior might be the most dynamic playmaker in the SoCon this season. The three-time offensive player of the week leads the league in passing efficiency, hitting 64.4 percent of his passes for 214 yards per game, with 16 TDs against just four interceptions. He's also the No. 3 rusher in the league, with 83.9 yards per game and seven touchdowns.
In a 59-46 loss at Mercer two weeks ago, Adams threw for 360 yards on 30-of-45 passing with two touchdowns, and ran for a career-high 185 yards and a pair of scores.
"They spread the field on offense, and the QB is going to be the difference-maker," Citadel coach Brent Thompson said. "We've got to keep them in front of us, attack the ball and make sure we don't give up big plays."
The best defense against Adams will be a Citadel offense that's good enough to keep the ball away from him. The Bulldogs are second in the SoCon in time of possession in league games, keeping the ball for an average of 32:15 per game.
But The Citadel will need a good day on third and fourth down. The Citadel's fourth-down conversion rate of 58.3 percent (14 of 24) is just seventh in the league in conference play.
"We need to convert first downs more than anything," Thompson said. "We've got to play ball control, and play downhill, keep on getting first downs and maintain possession of the ball ... We don't want to get into a shootout with them, and they tend to get in a lot of shootouts."
The Catamounts' defense is ripe for exploiting. WCU, with seven true freshmen on the two-deep and three starting on defense, is allowing 48.3 points, 536 total yards and 205 rushing yards per game.
Last year's 31-19 loss to Western Carolina was a turnover nightmare for the Bulldogs. The Citadel had three interceptions, two of them picked off by the Catamounts in the end zone, and lost two fumbles.
This season, The Citadel is dead even in turnover margin in SoCon play, with eight giveaways and eight takeaways. When the Bulldogs lose or are even in the turnover battle, they are 0-4 this season.
On the road
The Bulldogs are 2-1 on the road in SoCon games this season and 0-3 at home. They've won three of the last four in Cullowhee.
The Citadel 38, Western Carolina 34