The open date that turned around The Citadel’s season

The Citadel players have had a lot to celebrate since a 39-12 win over Wofford on Oct. 10 at Johnson Hagood Stadium. (Paul Zoeller/Staff)

The scene was grim that night at Johnson Hagood Stadium, at least from a Citadel perspective.

While Charleston Southern players celebrated a 33-20 win on Sept. 26, the Bulldogs undressed in a silent locker room. Coach Mike Houston was tight-lipped and brief as he assessed the damage.

Houston’s team had won its first two games, including an impressive victory over Southern Conference contender Western Carolina. But then came a blowout loss at Georgia Southern, in which rookie quarterback Dominique Allen threw two interceptions and the Bulldogs fumbled seven times, losing three.

That was followed by a crushing third straight loss to CSU, a game in which the Bulldogs were outscored 27-3 in the second half; The Citadel rushed for just 15 yards after halftime.

“We were all very disappointed,” said Allen. “We had the lead in the fourth quarter of that game, but we couldn’t move the ball and things didn’t go our way. But we came back the next week, and we knew we had a job to do.”

There was one saving grace: The Bulldogs had an open date after the CSU game, giving them two weeks to prepare for Wofford, a team that had beaten The Citadel 16 times in a row.

In retrospect, it looks like what some Bulldog fans are calling “the best open date in Citadel football history.” The Citadel (9-3) won five straight after that, and has won seven of the last eight games heading into Saturday’s 1 p.m. rematch with No. 8 seed Charleston Southern (9-2) in the FCS playoffs.

“It might have been the best open date,” Houston said. “The big thing was the way the kids responded. We knew we were better than that, and we saw that in the first two games.”

The most important choice made that week might have been a decision Houston and offensive coordinator Brent Thompson did not make — to replace Allen at quarterback.

Slotback Cam Jackson had competed with Allen for the QB job in preseason practice, and backup Shon Belton showed flashes during the spring game. But the coaches stuck with Allen, a 6-1, 214-pounder who now leads the Bulldogs in rushing with 891 yards and 13 touchdowns.

“Maybe the biggest thing is that we said, ‘Dominique is our starting quarterback,’” Houston said. “Because we believed in him as our starting quarterback.”

But there was some soul-searching among the players, Allen said.

“We got together in our meeting room as an offense,” he said. “And the seniors told us, it’s just two losses, one to an FBS team and one to Charleston Southern. So what? We still have the rest of our conference games to play, and we can’t give up now.

“We said, ‘We’ve got to believe in each other and believe in the staff, and they’ll take us where we want to go.’”

Houston said he was not really tempted to make major changes.

“The big changes we made were in the off-season,” he said. “And the big changes we made were based on study of what we did in our first season. You come in and bring a lot with your (success) from another program and try to apply it here. And how well you apply it is debatable.

“But any major changes were made based on a lot of study. So the biggest thing at that point was to just stick to our guns.”

There was one tweak, however. Fullback Tyler Renew, who had just seven carries in the first four games, and none against CSU, started the next game against Wofford. He ran for a team-best 85 yards and a TD, while Allen hit 7 of 10 passes for 125 yards and a score in a 39-12 win that snapped a 16-game skid against the Terriers.

Renew has started every game since and is the Bulldogs’ No. 2 rusher with 781 yards and five touchdowns.

“It really helped to play Wofford in the next game,” Houston said. “They are such a rival for us, a SoCon game and we had a really painful loss to them the year before. It helped us focus in, and the way we played in that game gave us a tremendous confidence boost that the previous two games were behind us.

“That was the turning point of the season, that open date and that Wofford game.”

Radio coverage of The Citadel’s football game Saturday will begin at 11 a.m. on WWIK-FM (98.9). The Bulldogs’ basketball game against College of Charleston will be on WQNT-AM (1450).

Citadel defensive end Joe Crochet has been named first-team CoSIDA Academic All-American. He graduated with a GPA of 3.82 and is pursuing a master’s in business. He has 37 tackles with three sacks this season.

Citadel linebacker Tevin Floyd has been named the SoCon defensive player of the month for November. He had a team-high 31 tackles as the Bulldogs went 3-1 for the month. He returned an interception 75 yards for a TD against VMI, and caused the fumble that set up a game-winning field goal at Coastal Carolina.