The two-time defending Southern Conference champions trailed 17-7 after J.J. Jerman hit a 46-yard field goal on ETSU’s opening drive of the second half. But, the Bulldogs (3-0) came back with the two fourth-quarter touchdowns and their defense stopped the Bucs (1-2) on a 4th-and-2 late in the game to win the Southern Conference opener for both schools. It was a milestone 500th win for The Citadel program.
While it was a huge turnaround for the Bucs, who lost 45-10 in Charleston the previous year, ETSU coach Carl Torbush wasn’t celebrating a moral victory.
“We’ve got a good football team. I told our guys getting close is not good enough,” ETSU coach Carl Torbush said. “We had a chance to win the ball game and we used our timeouts wisely. It just didn’t work out. But if we stay in this type of ball game with this type of opponent, we will win our share of ball games. I promise you that.”
Austin Herink completed 18 of 32 passes for 182 yards and two touchdowns to lead ETSU’s offense on a day when the Bucs got only 26 yards on 22 carries from the running game. Taking advantage of a bad punt snap early, Herink connected with Vincent Lowe on a play-action pass for a 22-yard touchdown.
Later in the half, he hit Lowe on a 27-yard pass completion down the left sideline to set up an eight-yard touchdown pass to Drake Powell.
The Bucs were held to negative rushing yards in the first half, but they got the needed stops from the defense to take a seven-point lead into halftime.
“We’ve got to score more points,” Herink said. “I thought the defense played great. Offensively, we have to continue to work and improve.”
ETSU received the second-half kickoff and scored on the opening drive, going seven plays for 45 yards, capped off by Jerman’s 46-yard field goal. Powell, who led ETSU with six catches for 76 yards, said the Bucs felt good about their chances throughout the game.
“We’re going up against the two-time champs and we almost win that ball game,” Powell said. “A couple of points here and there, and we need to convert on the mistakes they made. But, we were right there with them.”
The Citadel responded with a 14-play, 75-yard drive, finished with a two-yard touchdown run by quarterback Dominique Allen.
In final quarter, Webb scored off a reverse, going seven yards with 11:42 left to give The Citadel its first lead of the game. On the Bulldogs’ next possession, Allen hit Webb for a 28-yard touchdown and a 28-17 Citadel lead.
ETSU responded with a nine-play, 75-yard drive capped off by Jajaun Stinson’s four-yard TD run. Herink hit Kobe Kelley on a two-point conversion pass to cut the lead to just three points.
Jacob Godek added the game’s final three points with a 46-yard field goal with 2:17 left.
Still with a chance for a game-winning drive, Stinson was stopped a half-yard short on a 4th-and-2 run, which effectively ended the game.
Allen completed 4 of 10 passes for 104 yards and a touchdown, while Grant Drakeford had nine carries for 93 rushing yards to lead The Citadel offensively. Gaining 331 yards on the ground, the Bulldogs held a 435-208 advantage in total offense.
Despite those skewed numbers, Bulldogs coach Brent Thompson wasn’t surprised to see a tight game, talking about the improvement of ETSU from a season ago.
“They’re a different football team this year,” Thompson said. “They’ve grown up a year and you can tell it. They’re very efficient on offense and extremely tough on defense. It’s what I would expect from Coach Torbush and his staff. It’s a classy staff. This is a classy operation and a beautiful facility.”
Dylan Weigel led the ETSU defense with 19 tackles, followed by River Boruff with 14 and Kaman Cooper with 13. Nasir Player had eight tackles, including a key third-down stop in the second quarter, followed by a blocked field goal on the next play.
Player felt the Bucs did a good job overall facing the triple-option offense, although he didn’t like how the Bulldogs converted 9 of 17 on third down.
“We had a lot of momentum and I felt confident we were going to finish the game the right way,” Player said. “We will have to look at the film tomorrow and see what happened on some of those third-down plays. We had confidence going into this game. We just have some things to work on.”
While pleased with the improvement they’ve shown since last season, ETSU’s quarterback and head coach weren’t celebrating the close loss either.
“I feel like we’ve grown a lot as a team,” Herink said. “Last year, we went down there and maybe we were a little intimidated. This year, we felt we can compete with anyone. But instead of compete, we’d like to get a ‘W’ next time.”
Torbush added, “It was the type of ballgame we thought it would be, we just thought we would come out on top.”
ETSU hosts Mercer at 3:30 p.m. next Saturday.