SPARTANBURG — Wofford, a Southern Conference power celebrating its Homecoming Week, was averaging 40.1 points per game with a yard-gobbling Wingbone attack.

“But we ran the option in high school,” Citadel freshman linebacker James Riley said.

“So I was used to seeing a lot of option plays.”

Terriers fullback Eric Breitenstein next week or soon will become Wofford’s career rushing leader.

“I look at every running back the same,” Riley said Saturday after his first college football game. “I’m going to hit you and keep hitting you.”

The Citadel came up short in their Beacon Iced Tea Bowl upset bid at Gibbs Stadium, losing 24-21.

But Riley, a 5-11, 210-pound Business Administration major from Mobile, Ala., led the Bulldogs with 12 tackles and had a sack. Not shabby for a player on the designated redshirt list two weeks ago.

His glowing performance illustrates improvement within a program getting a little closer to the top teams in the SoCon, and with upside.

Of course, there are built-in limitations at The Military College of South Carolina. So Citadel intrusion into a SoCon title race this deep into October is gravy.

The Bulldogs (4-4, 3-3 in conference play) with wins against Elon and VMI over the next two weeks can seal their second winning season since 1997 before traveling to Furman for the 2012 finale.

The Citadel won one SoCon game in 2010, two in 2011 and already has three league wins this year. Hopefully, head coach Kevin Higgins gets an extension on a contract due to expire after the 2013 season. That would help in putting together recruiting classes with as much potential as the current group of freshmen.

“Over the last two years, our recruiting classes have been very good,” Higgins said. “Not only are they good players but we’ve been able to keep them in school and develop them.”

Riley was rushed into action after The Citadel in three weeks lost three linebackers to season-ending injuries. He got the short course on defending confounding Wofford option plays.

“That extra week of practice with the bye helped a lot,” Riley said. “If I messed up, the coaches were going to fix me.”

Riley relied on teammates a lot, double-checking calls at times.

“But he’s a very confident player,” said sophomore linebacker Carson Smith, The Citadel’s leading tackler for the season. “It was just the little technical stuff. Overall, he did really well.”

Lots of credit should go to defensive coordinator Denny Doornbos and linebackers coach Aashon Larkins for studying Wofford tendencies and preparing.

Still, no one expected James Riley to do a Ray Lewis act.

Surprised, coach?

“Actually, I wasn’t,” Higgins said. “James has good physical ability and he’s a tough kid.”

Breitenstein rushed for 110 yards on 23 carries and scored two touchdowns. But no Wofford points in the second half, a Spartanburg rarity.

Better yet for next year: only three of the 16 Citadel players that made tackles on defense Saturday are seniors.

“We have guys that can play,” Riley said. “And if any one of us that played (Saturday) goes down, we have other guys that can step in there, too.”

On the recruiting trail, Citadel coaches can point to former Bulldogs on both sides of the ball in the NFL: wide receiver Andre Roberts of the Arizona Cardinals, cornerback Cortez Allen of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

We digress.

We’re not here to talk about the past.

The future is bright.

Reach Gene Sapakoff at gsapakoff@postandcourier.com or on Twitter @sapakoff.