Fast, physical play have The Citadel on cusp of Southern title

(STATS) - The Twitter hashtag for football at The Citadel is #FireThoseCannons.

The salvos unleashed by the Bulldogs have put them atop the Southern Conference, and one more successful volley Saturday at Chattanooga would result in them claiming the league's automatic bid to the FCS playoffs.

It has been a year of overachieving for The Citadel (7-2, 6-0), ranked 21st in the most recent STATS FCS Top 25 and winner of five straight after back-to-back losses to Georgia Southern and Charleston Southern in September. Picked seventh in the coaches' preseason poll, the Bulldogs have turned those low expectations right side up under second-year coach Mike Houston while enjoying their longest single-season winning streak since 1992, which is also the last year they reached the FCS playoffs.

"Back when we had media day, we were picked seventh and I saw how much our team had changed on a daily basis at practice," said Houston, who felt his team was picked too low. "It all goes back to the buy-in of the guys who were here when we got here and the guys who came here the past two years and how they've meshed together."

It all comes to a head for the Bulldogs against the eighth-ranked Mocs, the unanimous preseason pick to win their third straight Southern title who now find themselves the hunters for the first time in conference play after a 17-14 loss at Mercer last week.

It's also a long way from last year's game, when Chattanooga rolled up 478 yards in a 34-14 win at The Citadel powered by quarterback Jacob Huesman (244 total yards, 3 TDs) and running back Derrick Craine (135 rushing yards).

"I told the guys we would finally acknowledge the pink elephant in the room ... and that's the Chattanooga game," Houston said Tuesday at his weekly press conference. "This is what you work for, this is why you play and coach: To put yourself in a position to play for a conference championship, an automatic bid to the NCAA playoffs and for something historic for our program."

The Citadel comes at opponents from all angles with waves of backs running its option. Seven players have at least 192 rushing yards, paced by quarterback Dominique Allen's 593, and the Bulldogs lead the FCS with 33 rushing touchdowns.

"Our offense is crazy. It's not a single-man offense, not based on one person or one skill set," Allen said. "A lot of guys contribute a lot of things. We have a great backfield for this offense, (offensive coordinator Brent) Thompson has taught us the offensive very well and I'm just the facilitator."

Being the facilitator also means the sophomore signal-caller has a series of decisions to make every snap, starting with reading the safeties into the line of scrimmage. Then it's checking the linebackers and defensive linemen for keys to see and choose which gaps can be exploited, followed by the post-snap decision to keep the ball himself, pitch to his A-back or B-back or occasionally throw a pass to keep the defense honest.

Almost all of those decisions during The Citadel's winning streak have been right. The Bulldogs have averaged 355.2 rushing yards in those wins, but perhaps more impressively is they've only suffered 52 yards in losses on 307 attempts in that span.

"I was pretty much the only new guy coming into the offense and I had to gel with them," said Allen, referring to teammates Cam Jackson (491 yards), Isiaha Smith (490), Evan McField (416), Vinny Miller (400), Tyler Renew (363) and Reggie Williams (192). "We've gotten along really great, we're a tight-knit group of kids."

That growth via cohesiveness and chemistry is also evident on defense, where The Citadel is tied for the FCS lead with 17 interceptions - four of which have been returned for touchdowns - on 262 passes after picking off only three in 334 attempts all of 2014.

Junior linebacker Tevin Floyd has three of those INTs and two of those touchdowns, including a 75-yard return in last week's 35-14 win over VMI.

"It kind of starts with the defensive line, getting pressure on the quarterback and he has to make a decision faster," Floyd said about the season-long interception binge. "The biggest difference is confidence in our preparation. Since the coaches got here they've been unified in planning and they have a genuine love for us as people, not just football players, creating a bond on the field as well as off the field."

The Citadel's defense will be challenged by Huesman, a dual threat who is close to a second straight season of at least 1,000 yards rushing and passing, and Craine - who has run for 100 yards four of the last five games. Houston's goal is "to keep (Huesman) contained in the run game and not let him get loose, not let him get comfortable in the play action."

"There's no hesitation and they're playing together very well," Houston said of his defense. "The way we break (to the ball), the way we tackle receivers, attack offensive lines, put pressure on quarterbacks, those force mistakes by opponents. We're going to play aggressive."

And perhaps be able to #FireThoseCannons one more time, to celebrate a long-awaited - and unexpected - return to the FCS playoffs.