With its Southern Conference title hopes on the line, The Citadel came up with two of its biggest plays of the season Saturday to keep that dream alive.
Quarterback Brandon Rainey, nursing a sore shoulder, threw a 73-yard touchdown pass to boyhood pal Raleigh Webb to give the Bulldogs their first lead of the game at 31-27 with 4:18 to play.
Then, defensive back Chris Beverly tackled ETSU receiver Nate Adkins a yard short of the end zone on fourth down with under 30 seconds left, preserving the Bulldogs' fourth straight victory at Greene Stadium in Johnson City, Tenn.
The Citadel (6-4, 4-2) is just a game behind Furman (5-1) and Wofford (4-1) in the SoCon standings. The Bulldogs already have beaten Furman, and after an open date next week, they finish the season with huge games at Chattanooga (3-2) and at home against the Terriers.
"We're still in this hunt," said coach Brent Thompson, who rode the shoulders of joyous Bulldogs in a noisy locker room after the game. "We've been going at it for 14 or 15 straight weeks, playing 10 games without a break. So we need this open date, and it's great to go in to it with a win."
The final two games might have been rendered meaningless without a stirring rally against ETSU. The Bucs (2-7, 0-6) led 27-17 with 14:11 left in the game behind quarterback Trey Mitchell, who hit 14 of 25 passes for 204 yards and three touchdowns.
"I knew it wouldn't be easy," Thompson said. "ETSU is very good - they run the ball well and are big and fast on defense. We didn't play very well at times, especially in the first half. But at the end of the day, when you don't play your best and still get the win, that shows you've come a long way."
Rainey, who hit 4 of 6 passes for 154 yards and ran for two scores, took a pop to his left shoulder and had to leave the game for one play in the fourth quarter. But on that play, Webb went 18 yards with a reverse. Rainey came back and passed 16 yards to Remus Bulmer, who made a twisting catch at the 1. Rainey scored from there and The Citadel was within 27-24 with 9:50 left.
ETSU receiver Keith Coffee could have put the game away for the Bucs, but he let a sure TD pass go through his hands. The Bulldogs cashed in that break when Rainey found Webb, his high school teammate, all alone for a 73-yard TD and a 31-27 lead with 4:18 left. It was the ninth TD catch of the season for Webb, who had two catches for 107 yards.
"We caught a big break there," Thompson said. "We hadn't gotten many breaks all day, but when we did, it was huge. We'd been setting up the play to Raleigh for a while. Brandon had some pressure in his face but put up a catchable ball, and Raleigh did his thing."
The Bucs drove all the way to The Citadel 6-yard line with 1:40 left. On fourth down, quarterback Trey Mitchell threw to Adkins short of the goal line, and Beverly made sure he stayed there.
"I really didn't have an assignment on the play," Beverly said. "I was able to read the quarterback's eyes and get over there to help Phil (Barrett) out and make the play.
"It was a long, hard game, but with our backs to the wall, we were at our best."
Dante Smith led The Citadel with 74 rushing yards, and Nkem Njoku added a 5-yard TD. Quay Holmes rushed for 120 yards for ETSU, which has lost five straight games.
Njoku appeared to have caught a 4-yard TD pass late in the first half, but the officials ruled that Njoku had lost control of the ball before he hit the turf in the end zone. The Citadel had to settle for a 21-yard Jacob Godek field goal and a 13-10 deficit at the half.
Thompson said officials told him the play was officially reviewed.
"It was very quickly reviewed, according to what the officials told me," he said. "If it was not, I was going to call a timeout so they would review it."
Down 13-10 at the half, The Citadel set up ETSU with great field position after Jaylan Adams fell down at his own 5 after catching the second-half kickoff.
The Bulldogs had to punt into the wind from their own end zone, and ETSU got the ball at its own 31. Nine plays later, Mitchell found Anthony Spagnoletti in the end zone for a 6-yard TD and a 20-10 lead early in the third quarter.
The Citadel needed just five plays to answer. Smith went 49 yards with an option pitch, and Njoku scored from 5 yards out as the Bulldogs cut the lead to 20-17 with six minutes left in the third.
A pass interference call on The Citadel on third and 4 from the Bulldogs' 10 — on a pass that was wide of the target and was not going to be caught — gave ETSU first down at the Bulldogs' 2. Mitchell threw to fullback Jawan Martin in the end zone, and the Bucs' lead was back to 27-17 early in the final period.
The Bulldogs played without linebackers Marquise Blount and Phil Davis and receiver Ryan McCarthy, all out with injury ... Linebacker Willie Eubanks led The Citadel with 11 tackles, and Sean-Thomas Faulkner added 11 ... The Bulldogs did not have a sack, but Destin Mack made a first-half interception.