published Friday, September 27th, 2013

SoConversation: Week 5

Welcome to the SoConversation, featuring The Citadel beat writer Jeff Hartsell of the Charleston Post and Courier, Elon beat writer Adam Smith of the Burlington Times-News and UTC beat writer John Frierson of the Times Free Press.

Four weeks of the college football season are in the books and ... wait, have Old Dominion and The Citadel both scored again? No? OK. Two games stood out from week four, Old Dominion’s thrilling 59-58 win over The Citadel and a game that was the exact opposite in pace and scoring, Gardner-Webb’s 3-0 victory at Wofford.

What was your overall takeaway from what SoCon teams accomplished (or failed to) last Saturday?

JEFF: Wait ... I think ODU just recovered a 13th straight onside kick. If I was Monarchs coach Bobby Wilder and just watched The Citadel score 58 points on my defense, I might not kick deep the rest of the season. At least on an onside kick, there's a 20 percent chance of getting the ball back without giving up a touchdown. Of course, given his high-powered offense, I wouldn't worry too much about defense either.

ODU has been an FCS playoff team the last two years, so the 58 points was a good sign for The Citadel's back-to-basics move on offense, and the Bulldogs won't see an offense like ODU's the rest of the season. I don't hold the 3-0 loss to G-Webb against Wofford too much, given the conditions at rain-soaked Gibbs Stadium. Otherwise, I'm ready to see some conference games. We've only had four so far!

JOHN: It was a Saturday of stinkers throughout college football, but I would have loved to have been in Norfolk to see the ODU-Citadel game. So much back and forth, so many big plays and a tremendous finish — it’s a shame the game wasn’t televised. As a reporter, however, those high-scoring, afternoon/evening games do make getting everything in before deadline a challenge.

I’m more of a defensive guy at heart — my favorite game I’ve ever covered was Auburn 7, LSU 3 in 2006 at Jordan-Hare Stadium — so the Gardner-Webb-Wofford game may have been more my speed. Credit to the Runnin’ Bulldogs and kicker Jordan Day for the upset, which maybe wasn’t an upset given what Gardner-Webb has done this season.

As for the other games, App State didn’t exactly put on a show against struggling Elon, Samford’s rally came up short against Southeast Louisiana (but welcome back Pat Sullivan, who was coaching from the press box) and Western Carolina needed a 20-point fourth quarter to get past Division II Mars Hill.

ADAM: Aside from the SoCon teams for a second, think about what Gardner-Webb of the Big South has been able to accomplish recently. The Runnin’ Bulldogs have gone three games (12 quarters) without scoring a touchdown — 55-0 loss at Marshall, 12-10 win over Richmond, 3-0 win over Wofford — and yet entered the FCS Top 25 media poll this week for the first time in 11 years.

That Wofford/Gardner-Webb game was played in a driving rain and coach Mike Ayers said Wofford scaled back some of its option pitches and calls due to the weather. Tough one for Wofford, which we loved up on last week (and deservedly so) after defeating Georgia Southern. Frierson and Hartsell warned that Gardner-Webb could be a letdown game. Professional stuff, fellas. Now the Terriers, on an open date, have two weeks to chew on that one.

Uncle Jeff Hartsell no doubt could use a spa day after covering that Citadel/Old Dominion shootout — 117 points, 58 first downs, 1,108 yards of offense. Wow. What a win that would’ve been for Citadel, with ODU headed for Conference USA.

There were some monster numbers elsewhere, too. Samford’s Andy Summerlin threw for three touchdowns and a school-record 478 yards. Western Carolina’s Karnorris Benson hauled in 212 receiving yards and three touchdowns. App State’s Marcus Cox, a true freshman, went off for 308 total yards and three scores. He looked like a star in the making.

Gardner-Webb’s win at Wofford was the Big South’s fourth in five games against SoCon teams. Gardner-Webb also beat Furman, Coastal Carolina beat Furman and Charleston Southern beat The Citadel, while the league’s only win over a Big South team was Furman’s win against Presbyterian, which required a blocked field goal in the final minute to seal.

While the RPI may not be the most accurate reflection of a conference’s strength so early in the season because not everyone has played their money games yet, according to RealTimeRPI.com the Big South ranks as the No. 15 league in Division I, five spots above the SoCon. The Big South is 13-7 in non-conference play and the SoCon is 7-15. How worrying is this for the SoCon, which has the ninth-best RPI among FCS schools?

JOHN: Long considered one of the elite leagues in the FCS, the SoCon has clearly not gotten off to a good start. Wofford remains the only SoCon ranked in the coaches’ poll at No. 15. The CAA and Big Sky have five each and the Missouri Valley has three in the top 10.

I think the RPI numbers are a little skewed because several of the Big South’s wins were against Furman, which appears to be down a bit this season. Elon is down as well, but you can bet the SoCon will be rooting for it to beat Coastal Carolina on Saturday.

If these numbers stay roughly the same throughout the season, and they may, then it’s cause for concern — especially when it comes time for the playoff selection committee to start comparing teams for at-large bid.

I still think the league will get two teams in, maybe three, but the possibility of it being a one-big league is certainly there right now. And who would have guessed that a month ago?

ADAM: To me, this Big South rising/SoCon sliding situation not only is worrying for the SoCon, but it’s also a reality check and sign of the changing times within the league.

Frierson makes a good point about the Big South feasting a bit on Furman, and it’s not like Presbyterian or VMI are beating Georgia Southern or Appalachian State. But still.

I can’t help but think back to 2003, when Elon was overjoyed to leave — bolt from — the Big South and step up to the SoCon. There was such an excitement and feeling that Elon had hit the big time. The Big South didn’t have enough football members for an automatic playoff berth then and was viewed as inferior when compared to the SoCon, which people used to call the SEC of Division I-AA.

Definitely not trying to be doom and gloom here. Just saying the times, they have changed.

JEFF: It might be the new reality, given the loss of App State and Georgia Southern from the SoCon going forward, and the switch of hapless VMI from the Big South to the SoCon. The Big South is bringing in start-up program Kennesaw State, and it will be interesting to see how fast that team develops — will KSU be another fast-track ODU, or will it struggle like Georgia State?

The SoCon needs Mercer and ETSU to get up and running as competitive programs quickly, and it needs Chattanooga, Samford, Furman  and The Citadel to step it up and join Wofford as a factor in the national FCS picture.

Now to the games you guys covered last week. Jeff was in Norfolk for the shootout between ODU and The Citadel, while Adam saw App State run out to an early lead and hold off Elon. John, meanwhile, probably did nothing during the Mocs’ open date. What stood out in the game you covered and what does it mean going forward?

ADAM: Couple of things struck me about App State. Mainly, the Mountaineers still have an elite level of athlete, five or six guys in certain spots, that Elon simply couldn’t match up with. When Sean Price jogged on the field for his first snap of the season — the end of the 6-foot-5 stud receiver’s suspension and reinstatement were announced 15 minutes prior to kickoff — he looked like Randy Moss gliding around out there.

Also, App State quarterback Jamal Londry-Jackson, while his numbers were impressive (16 of 21 for 205 yards and a 50-yard TD) while splitting time with Kam Bryant, is not the same player he was physically after that knee surgery in January. He simply can’t move and scramble like he used to and he doesn’t look comfortable when he has to or is asked to. The only inaccurate throws he made against Elon were on designed rollouts during which Londry-Jackson overshot a couple short throws to open receivers.

Bryant, a sophomore, is elusive and the Mountaineers appear set for future playmakers with him at quarterback, sophomores Price and Malachi Jones at receiver and true freshman Marcus Cox at running back. Cox turned his first start into a masterpiece of 159 rushing yards and 149 receiving yards.

But with all that said, Elon’s ability to rally from 24-0 down to within 24-21 showed that App State may continue to be vulnerable to surprises this season. And Elon may have discovered some long-sought balance with 193 rushing yards, its best total on the ground against a Division I opponent in nearly four years.

JEFF: The 58 points scored by The Citadel at ODU were the Bulldogs' most ever in a losing cause; the 117 combined points was a school record, as was Ben Dupree's five touchdowns. All of that was against a Monarchs defense that didn't have the first clue about defending the option, but I still think the performance bodes well for the Bulldogs' offense going forward.

One thing to watch — personnel losses have mounted up for The Citadel. An All-America center, starting tight end, starting middle linebacker (and leading tackler), third-team QB, backup defensive lineman and now a promising freshman running back have been lost to injuries and/or personal issues.

JOHN: I was hoping for a day of hiking but rain nixed that. Instead I ran a few errands, watched some Premier League soccer (darn you, ManU!) and then flipped around between a lot of bad games for the rest of the day. It was a largely unproductive day and that was just fine with me.

There are three league games on the schedule (UTC at Georgia Southern, Furman at The Citadel and Western Carolina at Samford), plus two non-conference games (Coastal Carolina at Elon and Charleston Southern at App State). What will you be watching for Saturday?

JEFF: Chattanooga at GSU is the heavyweight matchup, and recent years have seen some fun matchups between the two. The Eagles certainly appear vulnerable after their loss to Wofford and with some apparent QB issues, with Kevin Ellison starting at Wofford over Jerick McKinnon. Samford and The Citadel need to handle struggling SoCon foes at home, though I expect Furman to give the Bulldogs more of a tussle than WCU will at Samford. Furman's losses, by a TD each, came against what have proven to be pretty good Big South teams in Gardner-Webb and Coastal Carolina, a combined 7-1 this season. And the loss to G-W came without starting QB Reese Hannon.

In the Big South at SoCon matchups, I think Coastal Carolina will roll at Elon and Charleston Southern's win streak will end at App State, which has removed 6-5 WR Sean Price from the suspended list (Price had eight catches for 99 yards last week) and discovered a new star in RB Marcus Cox.

JOHN: Georgia Southern and UTC have a bit in common after three games. Both teams have lost to the good team they faced (the Mocs lost to UT-Martin and Wofford beat GSU) and thumped a pair of weak opponents. That means its really hard to gauge how this one is going to go. I do know that if the Mocs are going to challenge for the SoCon title and a playoff spot, this is a game they probably need to win.

This will be UTC’s final trip to Paulson Stadium, at least as far as we know, and it’s a place with few good memories for the Mocs. UTC is 1-12 all-time there.

I expect The Citadel and Samford to have little trouble winning their games, while the two non-conference matchups are pretty interesting given what’s happened so far with Big South-SoCon matchups.

ADAM: Really interested to see how things go Saturday night in Statesboro for all of the reasons Johnny Frierson mentioned and also because both teams are coming off two weeks to prepare after different results the last times they played — Chattanooga thumped Austin Peay while Georgia Southern lost to Wofford.

App State’s quarter-by-quarter rotation at quarterback is worth tracking. For all the good things Jamal Londry-Jackson has done in his career, for some reason I get the feeling that coach Scott Satterfield would like to make Kam Bryant his main guy at the position. Meanwhile, Charleston Southern is 4-0 but after edging Citadel in the season opener, it’s not like the Buccaneers have beaten Jim Tressel’s Youngstown State teams since then with uninspiring wins over Shorter, Campbell and Norfolk State.

Am I crazy or an insufferable homer or both for thinking that Elon pulls off an upset of 4-0 and nationally ranked Coastal Carolina? The Phoenix found some confidence on both sides of the ball last week during its second-half surge against App State. Heck, if Elon’s freshman kickers could hit a field goal — they’re a combined 1-for-7 on the season — both the losses to North Carolina A&T and App State might have turned out differently.

As we all know, Elon is leaving the SoCon after this year, taking Adam and all his awesomeness with it. You may not know that this is John’s last season, as well. He’s decided to leave the Times Free Press at the end of the calendar year to pursue, well, he’s not too sure yet.

Since this is the last go-round for them, and possibly the SoConversation itself, we will do some reminiscing throughout the rest of the season — and Jeff will of course join in, also. Here’s today’s question: What is the best SoCon game you’ve covered?

JOHN: It’s safe to say it wasn’t in the first two seasons I covered UTC, starting in 2007, when the Mocs won a total of three games (though UTC’s OT win at Georgia Southern in 2007 was entertaining).

The 2010 season opener probably gets my vote. The Mocs hosted App State and ran out to a stunning 28-7 lead. App rallied in the second half and eventually led 42-35 with six minutes left. The Mocs the cut the lead to one,42-41, with 51 seconds left on B.J. Coleman’s fourth TD pass.

Russ Huesman opted to go for the win with a 2-point try, but App was able to break up a pass in the end zone. It was a pretty dramatic start to the season, in front of 15,000, and it was a sign that the Mocs had come a long way in a short amount of time.

JEFF: For sheer surprise, it was The Citadel's 52-28 win at App State last year. Didn't see that one coming. Drama? Hard to beat The Citadel's 54-51 OT win over Furman in 2007, or Furman's 39-31 triple OT win over The Citadel in 2005.

Individual performance? Georgia Southern great Adrian Peterson had his coming out party against The Citadel in 1998. The Bulldogs led No. 1-ranked GSU  by 20-7 at halftime, but Peterson ran for 231 yards and five TDs to lead the Eagles to a 51-34 victory. All of AP's touchdowns came in the second half. Lawdy, lawdy, he was great.

ADAM: Mom? Is that you? Are you responsible for all these sweet things that are said about me here? Do you know how to use the Internet now?

This is a tough one. There’s a lot to pick though from these last 10 years.

Elon played some of its most significant games in school history during Pete Lembo’s 2006-2010 tenure, but lost the most meaningful ones during that stretch in mostly deflating fashion — 2008 and 2009 SoCon “championship games” against App State, the 2008 season finale at Liberty that would’ve put Elon in the FCS playoffs with a win and the 2009 playoff loss at Richmond, a 16-13 heartbreaker, that remains Elon’s only postseason appearance on the Division I level.

I’ll go with Elon’s 22-20 win at Georgia Southern in 2008, on a sticky September night in lower Georgia. The previous season, Elon scored a 36-33 victory against the Eagles in double overtime, one of the breakthrough moments of the Lembo era.

This time, Andrew Wilcox’s field goal with 6.1 seconds was the difference, stamping an exclamation point on his 5-for-5 kicking performance. Scott Riddle, then a sophomore, directed the first fourth-quarter, game-winning drive of what become a storybook career. That march included a fourth-and-10 completion to a guy named Terrell Hudgins for 20 yards.

Earlier in the fourth quarter, Riddle got obliterated by a hit and wobbled to the sideline, his legs looking like spaghetti. But he managed to clear the cobwebs and in the years since then, former teammates and coaches have talked about that night as a definer of Riddle’s tough-guy persona.

Elon’s offensive linemen hoisted Riddle and carried him off the field when the game ended. I interviewed him on the patio furniture out there beyond the one end zone at Georgia Southern where they have the flagpole with the six national championship flags. We both were seated and he kept spinning my tape recorder on the table while I asked questions, like it was a weird game of spin the bottle or something, and watching it closely to see where and at what angle it would stop. It was clear how woozy and out of it he still was, which made that ending all the more remarkable.

That’s it for this week and thanks for reading, as always. If you’ve got a question or comment, e-mail the writers at jhartsell@postandcourier.com, asmith@thetimesnews.com or jfrierson@timesfreepress.com. The guys are also on Twitter: @Jeff_fromthePC, @adam_smithTN and @MocsBeat.

about John Frierson...

John Frierson is in his seventh year at the Times Free Press and seventh year covering University of Tennessee at Chattanooga athletics. The bulk of his time is spent covering Mocs football, but he also writes about women’s basketball and the big-picture issues and news involving the athletic department. A native of Athens, Ga., John grew up a few hundred yards from the University of Georgia campus. Instead of becoming a Bulldog he attended Ole ...

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