Style Points in the SoCon
By BJ Bennett
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In addition to the high stakes, few pairings are more schematically-striking than Samford and The Citadel.
This Saturday stands as another showcase for the Southern Conference, with Samford and The Citadel meeting in Charleston in a clash of top 20 teams. Considerable postseason implications are on the line. The undefeated, homestanding Bulldogs can clinch the league's automatic playoff bid and at least a share of the league championship with a victory, while the visiting Bulldogs have a variety of scenarios, including a conference title, within their reach. At a combined 10-1 in SoCon play, Samford and The Citadel will collide with a number of possibilities at play.
In addition to the high stakes, few pairings are more schematically-striking. Chris Hatcher's Bulldogs rank second in the FCS with 376 passing yards per game; Brent Thompson's Bulldogs slot second nationally with 363 yards rushing.
Week ten is a prime example of the fact that you can win football games a number of different ways. Samford attempts roughly 48 passes per contest, compared to The Citadel's 66 rushing attempts. The two Bulldogs rank first and third in the league in total offensive production. The latest showdown at Johnson Hagood Stadium isn't just a championship contest, it's a championship contrast.
Samford is fresh off of a historic performance, 41 points and 627 total yards, in a loss at Mississippi State. Quarterback Devlin Hodges threw for 468 yards and four touchdowns on 69 attempts. Karel Hamilton caught 14 passes for 213 yards and two scores. Midway through the fourth quarter, the Bulldogs were within one score of an SEC foe.
A week ago, The Citadel moved to 8-0 for the first time in program history with a 45-10 win over East Tennessee State. The Bulldogs rushed for 427 yards and five touchdowns in the victory. A-back Cam Jackson had 124 yards and two touchdowns on just seven carries. The Citadel compiled 28 first downs and averaged seven yards per rushing attempt.
Ahead of a showdown that will help set the postseason pecking order, the respective offenses are likely to take center stage. Though the units have gone about it in opposite ways, the final impact has been almost exactly the same. Both offenses have set the tempo and tone for their teams, finding success by implementing their philosophies with great efficiency. Samford and The Citadel slot first and second in the conference in first downs per game.
Birmingham's Bulldogs will likely need another high-flying performance to pull off a road upset of one the two remaining unbeatens in all of FCS football.
"The Citadel is a great opponent for us," offensive coordinator Russ Callaway stated. "They do an outstanding job recruiting, scheming, playing hard, the whole nine yards. They just do a great job. We're going to have our hands full, just like we do every week in the SoCon. We just try to focus on executing, and everything else will take care of itself."
After close triumphs over both Chattanooga and Wofford in recent weeks, the thin line between winning and losing, for the top-five Bulldogs, has proven to be a gray one.
"Offensively, we have to do what we have to do. I told the team this afternoon we just have to play Citadel football and if we play Citadel football we're going to be fine. We have to control the clock a little bit, run the football, do what we do and concern ourselves with everything that Citadel football is all about," head coach Brent Thompson added.
Given how much offensive production means to the overall success of both squads, the two defenses will be looking to disrupt the rhythm of what their counterparts are planning to do. Thompson's Bulldogs are allowing opponents to complete merely 52.5% of their passes, the best defensive rate in the conference. Samford, even after the back-and-forth in Starkville, are giving up just 3.9 yards per rush attempt. Standouts Shaheed Salmon and Dee Delaney will play critical roles for their teams.
Hatcher knows it will take a complete team effort from his Bulldogs against the current conference front-runner.
"They're the best team in our league right now," he explained. "They're playing very well. They do what they do and they do it very well. We're going to have to play our best game to have a chance to win on Saturday. But, the biggest thing we need to do is get well and continue to work like we do every week."
Defensively, the challenge facing The Citadel is relatively-unique one as the Bulldogs look to clinch a spot in the postseason on Saturday.
"We have never really faced a team this year that has thrown the ball that much so we have to do a good job on defense of not only being able to cover but also pressure the passer, get it out of his hands a little bit quicker and try and force a little bit of mistakes," Thompson continued.
The tenth meeting all-time between Samford and The Citadel comes in early November, with sights set on early December. To date, the two programs have split their league meetings at four wins a piece. In one of the most compelling matchups on the college football schedule, this weekend's winner will have a slight edge in both style and the standings.