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Jeff's Take: On Citadel playoff chances, going for 2 and long bus rides

Brent Thompson coach.jpg (copy)

Citadel football coach Brent Thompson had plenty of time to reflect on the bus ride home after a 34-33 loss at Chattanooga on Saturday. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Eight hours on a bus gives a person plenty of time for introspection, self-examination and the pondering of regrets.

Or sleep.

But sleep's hard to come by if you are the coach of a football team that just lost a two-touchdown lead in the fourth quarter, and with it a shot at a conference championship.

"That's how I spent the last four or five hours on the bus," Citadel coach Brent Thompson said Monday, recalling a long Saturday night trip home from the Bulldogs' 34-33 loss at Chattanooga. "Trying to figure out how we get better at the end of games so that we don't have these type of games."

The Bulldogs couldn't hold on to a 33-20 lead with 8:49 left. And that means that instead of playing Wofford for a share of the Southern Conference championship on Saturday at Johnson Hagood Stadium, The Citadel must settle for playing for a winning season and a long shot at the FCS playoffs.

There were plenty of reasons the Bulldogs lost Saturday, and Thompson on Monday addressed two that fall under his immediate purview: The decision not to go for a 2-point conversion when up by 12 points in the fourth quarter, and his play-calling on two drives at the end of the game.

A touchdown with 8:49 left gave The Citadel a 32-20 lead, and an unsportsmanlike conduct foul on the Mocs meant that the Bulldogs could have put the ball at the 1½-yard line and gone for two and a 14-point edge. There's no real difference between a 12 or 13-point lead, but a 14-point advantage could have forced some hard decisions by Chattanooga at the end of the game.

"That did cross my mind there," Thompson said. "We double-checked with analytics, and it didn't say it was necessary. But you have the opportunity to put the ball at the 1½, and that's something that's crossed my mind more than once since the game ended."

Legendary football coach Dick Vermeil created a 2-point conversion chart in the early 1970s that many coaches still swear by; it says to go for two when up by 12. More recently, the website crunched the numbers and also found teams should go for two when up by 12.

Thompson also pointed out that The Citadel had two chances on offense to seal the victory after the Mocs cut the lead to 33-27 with 7:21 left. The Bulldogs went three and out on both drives, running the ball six times for 13 yards and no first downs.

On the Bulldogs' last drive, the Mocs called timeout after each of The Citadel's runs, and the Bulldogs were able to take just 35 seconds off the clock. Chattanooga got the ball back with 1:41 left, and went 73 yards (with the help of 30 yards in Citadel penalties) for the winning score with 28 seconds left.

It was very similar to The Citadel's overtime loss at Samford, when the Bulldogs blew a 14-point lead with 8:08 left, ran seven times for 12 yards with a chance to ice the game, and lost in four overtimes.

"We played a little bit conservatively at the end of the game, offensively and defensively," Thompson said. "But you don't want to give up the big play like we did against Samford, and that plays on a defensive coordinator's mind. And we turned the ball over twice in the first quarter, and that plays on a play-caller's mind.

"If you have the ball pitched out there and it goes on the ground, then you give the game away instead of them earning it."

Playoff chances

A win over Wofford would give The Citadel one of the strangest resumés in FCS football: Victories over Power 5 member Georgia Tech and SoCon co-champs Furman and Wofford, and losses to three teams that currently have losing records in Elon, VMI and Samford.

A 7-5 overall mark that would include a 5-3 SoCon record, and the only FCS win over a Power 5 squad this season, would merit consideration for the 24-team FCS playoffs. But it likely won't be enough.

"We could back our way into the playoffs," Thompson said. "My point would be that we'd have two Top 25 wins, two wins over the top two teams in our conference, and some very close losses. And the last thing on our resumé is the FBS win, and there's only been three of those all year.

"So would our resumé be strong enough? I'd say yes. Would we get a shot? I can't say I have a lot of faith in it. But if we go out and play well, we'd have a chance."

Wofford (7-3, 6-1) has the SoCon's automatic bid, and Furman (7-4, 6-2) is a good bet for an at-large berth even though the Paladins don't really have a standout victory.

If The Citadel beats Wofford and Chattanooga wins at VMI, a third SoCon bid would come down to the Bulldogs or Mocs (7-5, 6-2 in that scenario). As co-champs with a head-to-head win, Chattanooga might have the edge. So Citadel fans have another reason to root for a rival: A VMI win over the Mocs might marginally boost the Bulldogs' playoff hopes.

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

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