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Khafari Buffalo (right) and The Citadel Bulldogs play at Mercer on Saturday. File/Staff

The Citadel's early football schedule already was tough enough, with two Southern Conference games to start the season, and three league games in the first four.

And then Hurricane Florence happened.

After the storm forced a mandatory evacuation of the S.C. coast last week — and the postponement of the Bulldogs' home game against Charleston Southern to Nov. 29 — the Bulldogs' altered schedule now has three straight SoCon games to start the season, including Saturday's 4 p.m. game at Mercer.

It's the first time since 1926, when The Citadel played in the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association, that the Bulldogs have started a season with three straight league games.

That year, coach Carl Prause's Bulldogs, captained by Ephriam Seabrooks, started 2-1 with league victories over Stetson and Mercer and a loss to Chattanooga.

Here are four keys to another victory over Mercer on Saturday:

Start faster

There are slow starts, and then there are the lead-footed first quarters the Bulldogs have played in losses to Wofford and Chattanooga. The Citadel trailed both games by 14-0 at the end of the first quarter, digging holes they could never quite climb out of.

The good news: The Bulldogs came back to tie both games, led Chattanooga in overtime, and have outscored foes, 49-29, in the final three quarters.

A quicker start might be a challenge for a team that spent seven days away from football activities during the evacuation. On the other hand, the Bulldogs should be rested and fresh.

"With the freshness of our legs, and we're about 100 percent back with injuries, this could be a good game for us to kind of break out," coach Brent Thompson said.

Solve Riddle

Mercer (2-1, 1-0) pulled off a shocker in its SoCon opener last week, knocking off league favorite Samford, 30-24. The Bears, in their sixth season under former Furman coach Bobby Lamb, had been blown out, 66-14, in their season opener at Memphis.

But redshirt freshman quarterback Robert Riddle, from Chattanooga's McCallie School, had a coming-out party against Samford. He hit 23 of 34 passes for 316 yards and a touchdown with one interception, and ran for two more touchdowns to earn the SoCon's offensive player of the week award. Tee Mitchell ran for 103 yards, and Marquise Irvin caught six passes for 71 yards.

Riddle split time with Kaelen Riley, the SoCon freshman of the year last season, in the first two games, but now apparently has won the job.

"They have found a nice quarterback," Thompson said of the 6-3, 207-pound Riddle. "He threw very efficiently and controlled the offense. He didn't look like a young kid at all; he looked like an experienced player."

The Citadel defense will have to do a much better job against Riddle and Co. than it did against Chattanooga QB Nick Tiano, who threw for 347 yards and two TDs in a 29-28 win over the Bulldogs. Tiano was not sacked once, and receiver Bryce Nunnelly got open enough to average 26.8 yards on 10 catches.

Control the clock

One way Mercer was able to pull off the upset of Samford was by keeping the ball away from Samford's quick-strike offense. The Bears held the ball for 35:27 to 24:33 for Samford, which was still able to run 70 plays for 424 yards.

"The secret to success when playing a team like Samford is to keep the ball out of the hands of their quarterback, Delvin Hodges," Lamb said. "And the way you do that is you control the ball."

The Citadel would like to employ a similar strategy to keep the ball away from Riddle. The Bulldogs had a time-of-possession edge of about 14 minutes against Chattanooga and almost five minutes in a 28-21 loss at Wofford, and will need to do it again.

Make a play

The Citadel has been a play or two away from victory in its first two games. At Wofford, the Bulldogs had four shots at the end zone from the Wofford 5-yard line and couldn't convert.

Against Chattanooga, The Citadel missed a go-ahead field goal from 21 yards out in the third quarter; lost a fumble after a successful fake punt in the fourth quarter; and couldn't stop a 2-point conversion in overtime.

"We've got to find a way to win those games when they are that tight," Thompson said. "Wins are hard to come by, but if you can get one of those, that means a lot going forward."

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