(STATS) – The Citadel didn't lose a game to an FCS opponent all season, but it found itself in desperate need of a fourth-quarter comeback on numerous occasions.
Perhaps no team was more convinced it had the Bulldogs beaten than Wofford.
The Terriers couldn't close it out in October, but they'll get another crack at their Southern Conference rivals Saturday in Charleston with a trip to the quarterfinals on the line.
The Citadel (10-1) trailed their first three opponents in the final three minutes before rallying, and though the deficit never quite got to that particularly late state October 22 in Spartanburg, Wofford (9-3) seemed to be well on its way to busting the Bulldogs' perfect start. But Brandon Goodson's ill-advised option pitch was picked off by SoCon defensive player of the year Kailik Williams and returned for a 13-yard score with 5:57 left, knotting the score at 21.
In overtime, another mistake proved to be one too many. After the Bulldogs' Cody Clark kicked a 21-yard field goal on the opening possession, running back Will Gay fumbled at the 13, with the Terriers' fourth turnover of the day closing out a Citadel victory.
“It was a win, but it felt a little bit like a loss on that day,” Bulldogs coach Brent Thompson said. “Not a high point of our 2016 season.”
If The Citadel felt that guilty about a victory, it's easy to imagine how the other side felt.
“This is one that will stick in your craw for a while,” coach Mike Ayers said.
Not too long, evidently. Wofford closed the regular season on a four-game winning streak with a 36-28 win at Chattanooga providing its signature victory, then slipped past Charleston Southern 15-14 in the first round on Lorenzo Long's 32-yard run late in the third quarter.
“Our mission was that we were going to win out and maybe see (The Citadel) later on,” Wofford linebacker Terrance Morris told the Spartanburg Herald-Journal. “Look what happened.”
There will be no mysteries at Johnson Hagood Stadium on Saturday. Both teams run the triple option. Both are among the top five rushing teams in the nation, with The Citadel's 358.5 yards per game at No. 1. Both have 32 touchdowns on the ground.
The difference could come on the defensive side. Wofford allows just 2.7 yards per carry, 1.3 fewer than The Citadel gives up, and those differentials held true in October. The Bulldogs averaged 3.7 yards on 51 carries and the Terriers toted it 60 times for 5.0 per carry.
But, oh, those turnovers.
“I'm treating it just like any other game – at least I'm trying to,” Gay said of the rematch. “I'm trying not to overthink it. Once we get there, I know I'll be thinking a lot about (the fumble). It will make me go even harder.”
If he can go at all. Gay and fellow running back Lennox McAfee left the Charleston Southern game with injuries, and while Gay came back in to return a punt – seemingly leaving him at least questionable – McAfee was carted off with a leg issue.
They're hardly the only ones. Both starting inside linebackers – Lincoln Stewart and Datavious Wilson – were also hurt against the Buccaneers, with Stewart needing to be carried off after lying motionless after a tackle. It turned out to be nothing more than a pinched nerve, and Stewart may play this week. He's the third Terriers linebacker to be carted off with a frightening injury this season after Michael Roach went into cardiac arrest and John Patterson suffered fractured vertebrae in his neck.
The Bulldogs are healthier, though slotback Cam Jackson is questionable after missing two games with a bruised thigh, and have had a week to rest. But like a lot of teams at this time of year, they're not exactly looking forward to facing an opponent they've seen before.
“It's not something we were looking forward to, facing a SoCon opponent,” Thompson said. “Especially an opponent that knows you so well, and we've had some really good football games over the last few years with them.”
Both teams have reliable kickers, though there's no question which has the bigger leg. Wofford's David Marvin hit 15 of his 19 field-goal attempts this season, going a remarkable 5 of 6 from beyond 50 yards. He did miss from 49 in the first game against The Citadel, though, a kick that could have made the difference.
But it starts on the ground. Tyler Renew is the Bulldogs' 1,000-yard back, and he knows a similar offensive performance to the October meeting could leave his team one-and-done this postseason.
“Our fundamentals were pretty poor the first time we played them, and we practiced that a lot in the last week,” Renew said. “We're excited to take the field Saturday, execute really well and perform at a high level.”