(STATS) - It's not surprising that No. 6 Chattanooga is atop the Southern Conference standings at 2-0 following its 31-3 pasting of Furman last weekend. The surprise, however, is that The Citadel is the only other team at 2-0 in conference play heading into its clash at Samford on Saturday.
The Citadel, which is 3-2 overall, started fast with home victories over Davidson and Western Carolina by a combined 97-10 score. They were quickly brought back to earth after absorbing a 48-13 pounding at Georgia Southern on Sept. 19, and the hangover continued the following week in a 33-20 defeat to Charleston Southern.
But The Citadel got its running legs back in a 39-12 rout of Wofford, churning up 271 rushing yards with its triple-option offense to beat the Terriers - whom they held to 118 on the ground - at their own game and end a 16-game losing streak in the series. The Citadel enters this game at a crossroads of sorts, looking to establish some road bona fides while asserting itself as the threat to the co-leading Mocs that Samford (3-2, 1-1) was expected to be according to the preseason coaches poll.
"The biggest thing to take away from Saturday is that we are 2-0 in the Southern Conference," said second-year coach Mike Houston, whose rebuild at the military academy appears to be ahead of schedule as The Citadel tries to build on its five-win season of 2014. "That was our goal, so to be sitting here at mid-season in first place tied with Chattanooga is the best place we can be."
Dominique Allen is a key reason for that status, as the first-year quarterback has been steady in directing The Citadel's attack. The sophomore had arguably his best game of the season against the Terriers, completing 7 of 10 passes for 125 yards and a touchdown and adding 72 yards and two rushing TDs on 10 carries.
"The biggest thing with me as a head coach is that I go by a lot of stuff with my gut feeling," Houston said of Allen. "I was never unnerved with him Saturday. He ran the ball effectively and with authority. He looked very confident and composed."
The Citadel have a stable of backs who rotate behind Allen, and that depth was on display versus Wofford since B-back and leading rusher Evan McField (391 yards) had only eight on three carries. Tyler Renew, making his first start and returning after a three-game absence, led the way with 85 yards, and five players rushed for at least 32 yards.
The Citadel leads the Southern with 328.2 rushing yards per game, which is also good for third in the FCS.
Playing Wofford gave The Citadel a chance to play a mirror of sorts defensively, but it also ranks tied for sixth in the FCS with nine interceptions and has limited opponents to an average of 132.2 passing yards - substantially better than their 2014 marks of 246.7 yards allowed per game while recording only three interceptions. Another such effort will be needed against Samford (3-2, 1-1), which has a standout quarterback in Michael Eubank - he's thrown for 1,295 yards and 10 TDs with four interceptions while completing 70.5 percent of his passes.
"The coaches have been putting an emphasis on it but our guys in practice like (Dee) Delaney, (Mariel) Cooper, (Malik) Diggs, (Nick) Willis and Kalik Williams, they all challenge each other every day," linebacker Tevin Floyd said. "As long as we keep being more physical than the other team at the point of attack, we will continue to see turnovers and things continuing to happen for our defense."
Elsewhere around the Southern Conference:
No. 6 Chattanooga (4-1, 2-0) at VMI (1-5, 0-2)
The Mocs, the preseason favorites to repeat as conference champions, appear to be hitting their stride, and that's not good news for the rest of the Southern. That's because the improvement is coming on defense to complement the all-around offensive brilliance of dual-threat quarterback Jacob Huesman.
Chattanooga walloped Furman 31-3 last week and has allowed only that field goal in its last two games after yielding 78 points in its first three games, but coach Rick Huesman is refusing to let his team be complacent as it faces the only winless team in conference play.
"If we don't play well or really well, we'll get beat," Huesman said. "We've got a lot of people that know we were preseason favorites and we're 2-0 in the league. You're going to get a lot of good shots."
Western Carolina (3-2, 1-1) at Wofford (3-3, 1-1)
The Terriers seek a bounce-back effort after their 118 rushing yards were their fewest against an FCS opponent since Georgia Southern limited them to 78 on Sept. 19, 1998. That, however, may be a tall order against a Catamounts team riding high after rallying to a 24-21 win over Mercer last week. Western Carolina scored a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns, the last a 22-yard run by Detrez Newsome with 42 seconds left to cap a 14-play, 91-yard drive.
Western Carolina snapped an eight-game losing streak in the series last year with a 26-14 home victory thanks to two TDs by Newsome and will now try to end an eight-game skid at Wofford that dates to 1981 and get their first conference road win over the Terriers.
"It's a big challenge. We've got a group that I think is going to respond; I believe they'll respond," Wofford coach Mike Ayers said. "Last year, we were in the game - but we just did not make enough plays."
East Tennessee State (0-5) at Mercer (2-3)
The Bears step out of conference to host FCS fledgling and future Southern Conference opponent ETSU, which has a program for the first time since 2003 and has lost its three games to FCS opponents by a combined 129 points. It may be the perfect bounce-back opportunity for Mercer, which is still stewing from allowing 21 unanswered points to Mercer last week, but coach Bobby Lamb thinks his team has shown the proper maturity during the week to deliver a needed win.
"Last year, it would have been an issue, but we are a more mature football team this year," said Lamb, who is seeking to improve to 11-1 in non-conference games at Mercer. "We only have two seniors on this team, but we do have a lot of juniors who provide a lot of leadership."
Idle: Furman (3-3, 1-1)