Numbers don't lie, the saying goes. But sometimes they don't tell the whole truth, either.
On Saturday against FCS No. 24 ETSU, The Citadel's defense allowed one touchdown, racked up four sacks and penetrated the line of scrimmage for 11 tackles for loss, holding the Bucs to a measly 1.8 yards per rush.
Bulldogs quarterback Jordan Black passed for 188 yards and also rushed for two touchdowns. The Citadel reeled off 26 more plays and piled up 167 yards more than ETSU, the Southern Conference's first-place team.
Somehow, to the disappointment of a Parents Day crowd of 11,043 fans at Johnson Hagood Stadium, it all added up to a 26-23 loss for the Bulldogs.
The Bucs' J.J. Jerman kicked four field goals and safety Tyree Robinson ran back his second interception of the game, this one off a tipped pass, for a clinching 42-yard touchdown to give ETSU a 26-16 lead with just 1:53 left in the game.
It left the Bulldogs at 1-4 overall and 1-3 in the Southern Conference and struggling to explain how this one got away.
"We definitely should have won this game," said Black, who hit 15 of 23 passes and ran for touchdowns of 1 and 2 yards but was intercepted twice. "We had our little mistakes here and there, and we had our chances and we didn't convert them."
Linebacker Noah Dawkins had nine tackles, two sacks and three tackles for loss as The Citadel defense rebounded from an atrocious performance in a 44-27 loss at Towson.
"On the defensive side, we played really well today," Dawkins said. "But we came up short when it matters. We just have to keep on pushing."
What went right
The Bulldogs' defense, shredded by Towson QB Tom Flacco two weeks ago, responded with perhaps its best effort of the season. ETSU (6-1, 4-0), off to its best start since 1996, was held to a season-low 55 rushing yards on 31 attempts.
The Citadel sacked ETSU quarterback Austin Herink four times, including 1.5 from tackle Joseph Randolph II and half a sack for tackle Ken Allen. Randolph had 3.5 tackles for loss.
The Bulldogs' rushing attack wasn't great, averaging 3.8 yards per attempt, but still put up 203 yards on the Bucs, who had been allowing just 70.5 yards per game. Black's 8-of-9 passing in the first half included a 69-yard bomb to Raleigh Webb, who caught eight balls for 116 yards.
"We're just not playing team football right now," said Thompson, whose Bulldogs have lost seven of their last eight games. "When one side of the ball is working, the other side of the ball is maybe giving up something ... I thought we played a good first half on defense and a good second half on offense.
"For us to win against a good team like ETSU, you've got to play a good four quarters of consistent football, not just two and two."
What went wrong
Thompson has been aggressive on fourth down this season, as The Citadel converted 15 of 22 fourth-down chances heading into the game. But the Bulldogs failed twice on fourth down in the first half, setting up ETSU with short fields leading to Jerman field goals of 46 and 40 yards, the second tying the score at 6 in the second quarter.
"You are fourth and 1, fourth and 2, and we've converted those most of the year," Thompson said. "That's where I challenged the guys, and I was a little bit disappointed. Then in the second half, we punted it away and they drove the field for a touchdown anyway. So you're damned if you do, damned if you don't."
ETSU's only TD, on a 12-yard pass from Herink to Kobe Kelley to cap an 85-yard drive, followed that punt and gave ETSU a 16-9 lead halfway through the third quarter.
The Bulldogs responded by running 10 straight times from their own 10 to the ETSU 23. But on first down, Black didn't see safety Robinson lurking behind tight end Attorney Gallman on a post route, and put a little too much air under his pass. Robinson picked it off in the end zone to snuff the scoring threat.
"I should have put that one in there, like coach said," Black said. "I just tried to put it up for him and not make it too difficult, so it was a mistake by me."
Trailing 19-16 with 4:02 left after Jerman's 36-yard field goal, The Citadel still had a chance. But Khafari Buffalo fielded a kickoff that looked like it was headed out of bounds at the 3-yard line, and was tackled at the 12. Then, the Bulldogs were penalized back to their 7 for having 12 men in the huddle.
And on fourth-and-5 from the Bulldogs' 32, Black's pass across the middle for Dijon Profit was deflected and picked off by Robinson, who set sail for a 42-yard TD and a 26-16 lead.
The Bulldogs made haste for a 65-yard TD drive in just 1:21, scoring on Clay Harris' 3-yard run to make it 26-23 with 32 seconds left. But ETSU's Artevius Smith recovered the onside kick to ice it.
The Citadel is at winless VMI next week before returning home against Furman, which shocked Wofford 34-14 on Saturday. Wofford's loss left ETSU alone in first place in the SoCon.
• With slotback Rod Johnson out, freshman Joshua Bowers returned kickoffs and had 116 yards on five returns, with a long of 36 ... Webb is the first Bulldogs receiver with 100 yards in a game since Matt Thompson in 2012 against App State ... Wando linebacker Justin Pelic visited The Citadel on Saturday and received a scholarship offer, he posted on Twitter ... Black's 15 completions in 23 attempts were the Bulldogs' most in each category since QB Tommy Edwards went 23 of 38 against Georgia Southern in 2009.