VMI and The Citadel: The same, but different

The Citadel has owned the coveted Silver Shako since 2002, having beaten VMI eight times in a row. The Military Classic of the South was not played in 2004 and 2008-10. Russ Pace/The Citadel

The similarities between The Citadel and Virginia Military Institute are what make the football rivalry between the two military schools something special. The Military Classic of the South pits the only two NCAA Division I non-academy military schools against each other, with the coveted Silver Shako trophy on the line.

Both VMI and The Citadel feature a rigorous fourth-class system (freshmen are rats at VMI, knobs at The Citadel) and proud records of sending graduates on to military and public service (Gen. George Marshall of the Marshall Plan played football at VMI; U.S. Sen. Ernest Hollings and Charleston Mayor Joe Riley went to The Citadel).

But when it comes to football, there are some very real differences that have helped The Citadel own an edge over VMI that’s only grown more distinct in recent years. The Citadel has a 38-30-2 advantage over VMI in the series, and has won 18 of the last 23 meetings, including the last eight in a row.

This year, the Bulldogs are 6-2 overall and in the hunt for a Southern Conference title at 5-0 in the league; a win against VMI on Saturday at Johnson Hagood Stadium would go a long way toward locking down an at-large berth to the 24-team FCS playoffs.

VMI, meanwhile, is destined for its 12th straight losing season at 2-7 overall and 1-4 in the SoCon, and hasn’t posted a winning record since 1981.

The Citadel’s success in its second season under coach Mike Houston doesn’t offer much of a blueprint to first-year VMI coach Scott Wachenheim because of the differences in the programs, Wachenheim said.

“They are two totally different schools in how they go about certain aspects of their programs,” said Wachenheim, a 1984 graduate of Air Force who coached for his alma mater and at Liberty and Virginia. “There are some different pieces of the puzzle in place. Coach Houston took over a team at The Citadel that Kevin Higgins already had running the triple option, which is his style of offense.

“When we came here, VMI had a great quarterback in place in Al Cobb, so we’re designing the offense to fit what Al does best. That’s a pretty big difference between the two programs with new coaches coming in.”

Other differences are more systemic. The presence of The Citadel’s graduate school makes a huge difference in the way the Bulldogs are able to redshirt players, and in the school’s ability to bring in graduate-student transfers.

Citadel players are able to sit out a redshirt year as freshmen with the knowledge that they can graduate with their class and live off campus and work toward a graduate degree during their fifth year, much like Citadel defensive end Joe Crochet is doing this season.

The graduate school also enables Citadel coaches to bring in grad-student transfers who still have a season of eligibility left. Starting cornerback Mariel Cooper is a graduate of South Carolina State, and in the past The Citadel has brought in grad-student transfers such as quarterbacks Jeff Klein (Auburn) and Willie Simmons (Clemson).

VMI, on the other hand, does not have a graduate school. That means the Keydets cannot take grad-student transfers, and complicates the process of redshirting.

In order to take a redshirt year, a VMI player has to take what is known as a “ninth semester.” That means a player must put off graduating for a semester, and not graduate with his class. Ninth-semester players also must continue to live in the barracks, wear a uniform and muster along the other cadets.

When VMI linebacker Byron Allen wanted to return for a ninth semester for the 2011 season, he had to drop a required course in the spring semester in order to delay graduation. In the fall semester, he only needed three hours to graduate, but had to take 12 due to school rules.

Still, VMI is able to redshirt players. Only four freshmen are in the Keydets’ current two-deep, and the roster includes more than 50 players listed as redshirts. A 2012 internal report said that 80 percent of players eligible for a ninth-semester choose to return for that fifth season.

Cobb, a 6-3, 190-pound redshirt sophomore who was recruited by former VMI coach Sparky Woods, is the linchpin of this year’s team. He’s the top passer in the SoCon, averaging 278 yards per game with 14 touchdowns and 18 interceptions. Junior Aaron Sanders is the top receiver in the league with 72 catches for 796 yards and two scores.

Cobb threw two TD passes and Derrick Ziglar ran for 104 yards and two scores in VMI’s 28-21 win at Mercer two weeks ago. VMI has also played close against SoCon foes Furman (24-21) and Chattanooga (33-27).

“VMI is a much improved program,” Houston said. “They have a very formidable passing attack, and are averaging better than 100 rushing yard per game. We’ve got to defend the run first of all, then do a great job of getting pressure on Cobb, challenge those receivers and do a great job of tackling them after the catch.”