Wildcats are very big underdogs vs. Citadel

Mitchell Jeter and The Citadel Bulldogs hope for a better result in Saturday’s season opener against Davidson than they got last year against Coastal Carolina. (Paul Zoeller/Post and Courier)

Players from the Davidson football team that defeated The Citadel 50 years ago are in Charleston for a reunion this weekend. They will dine at a banquet downtown, then gather Saturday at Johnson Hagood Stadium. Thirty-seven members of that team and two of its coaches will be decked out in red and white at the game.

Odds are, however, that they won’t see a repeat of Davidson’s 14-0 win in 1965.

The Davidson program that will face The Citadel at 6 p.m. Saturday in their first meeting since 1985 is a far cry from the Homer Smith-coached squads that beat the Bulldogs in ‘65 and won a share of the Southern Conference title in 1969.

The latest chapter in the Wildcats’ long and complicated football history has them going 1-22 over the past two seasons as a member of the non-scholarship Pioneer League, a FCS step below The Citadel and the Southern Conference.

That lone victory — a 56-0 win over College of Faith last season — was against a school that the NCAA has since ruled does not meet the standards for a “countable opponent.” The Wildcats played one SoCon team a year ago, losing by 52-24 to VMI. The Citadel beat VMI by 45-25 last year.

Davidson began playing football in 1837, and over the years the football program has been in and out of the SoCon, the old Colonial League and the Big South, eventually landing in the Pioneer League in 2001.

There, the Wildcats play against Campbell, Stetson, Jacksonville, Morehead State, Valparaiso, Butler, Dayton, Drake, Marist and San Diego.

Coach Paul Nichols was the Wildcats’ quarterback when the team went undefeated in 2000. Last season, his team had 77 freshmen and sophomores. Davidson will throw the ball, averaging 38 passes per game last season. Receiver William Morris, a 6-1 senior, had 98 catches for 1,224 yards, and against VMI caught 16 passes for 208 yards. Quarterback Taylor Mitchell, a 6-1 sophomore, started four games last year.

“I don’t think there’s any question that you’ll see a group that’s in better condition, that knows a little bit more about our system, and can play as hard as we possibly can play,” said Nichols.

Still, Citadel coach Mike Houston will be much more interested in how his team plays than in anything Davidson does. The memory of last year’s season opener — a 31-16 loss to Coastal Carolina that kicked off a 5-7 debut season for Houston — still rankles.

“I’ve talked to our players about how we started the season last year, how we played against Coastal,” said Houston, whose 2013 Lenoir-Rhyne team beat Davidson by 34-18. “Sure, Coastal Carolina was a great team last year. But we did not play the way, with the identity, that we want to play with. We did not do the things consistently that good football teams do, and we made mistakes to shoot ourselves in the foot.

“The biggest thing I want to see in all three phases, and particularly on offense, is to go out and be efficient and not make those mistakes that set us back or cause bad things to happen.”

Citadel sophomore Dominique Allen will make his college debut as a starting quarterback, but has plenty of experience around him, including all five starters back on the offensive line. Freshman fullback Evan McField of Goose Creek High School, listed as a co-starter along with sophomore Isiaha Smith, will also play for the first time.

On defense, Houston expects to see a group that’s much more comfortable in its schemes and ready to attack.

“Everybody is flying around and moving faster,” said junior linebacker Tevin Floyd, the team’s top tackler last year. “I think we have more of an aggressive attitude, just with a year of experience under our belt ... We want to know our alignment, know our assignment and play fast.”

The Citadel announced this week that the club level at Johnson Hagood Stadium has sold out this season for the first time in the history of the west tower, which opened in 2008.

Saturday’s game will be live-streamed on ESPN3, with Kevin O’Rourke and former Citadel player Sadath Jean-Pierre on the call. On The Citadel Radio Network (1450-AM in Charleston), Mike Legg will be on the call along with ex-Bulldog Lee Glaze and Jay Harper.