Nate Adkins caught Trey Mitchell’s fourth-down pass a yard from the goal line and could go no further, and that proved to be the difference in The Citadel’s 31-27 victory over ETSU on Saturday at Greene Stadium.
With several graduated members of last year’s Southern Conference championship team on hand for homecoming, the Bucs remained winless in the league. They fell to 2-7 overall, 0-6 in the SoCon.
“Losing is the same, no matter how,” Mitchell said. “If you get blown out by 40 or come up a yard short, losing is all the same. It’s the worst.”
Mitchell threw three touchdown passes and Quay Holmes ran for a career-high 120 yards on 20 carries. Will Huzzie caught seven passes for 143 yards and a touchdown.
It was the first time ETSU had a 100-yard rusher and receiver in the same game since last season’s opener.
The Bucs, who led most of the game and out-gained The Citadel, appeared to be on their way to a comeback victory when they moved the ball to the 6-yard line with two minutes left.
Mitchell then threw three incompletions before connecting on a pass to Adkins at the 1-yard line on fourth down, but the tight end couldn’t fight his way into the end zone, turning the ball over to The Citadel.
“Nate, he’s a big strong guy,” Holmes said. “That’s just kind of how the dice roll. He had his back to the goal line so that made it harder for him. I hoped the ball might have at least break the plane, but they said it didn’t.”
Mitchell completed two big passes on the drive, a 34-yarder to Huzzie and a 28-yarder to Keith Coffee that set up the final set of plays. Facing first-and-goal from the 6-yard line, Sanders called four consecutive pass plays on a day in which his offense rushed for 224 yards.
“Obviously it gets harder to run when you get down in there because the safeties, instead of being 12 yards deep, are six yards deep and they show up a whole lot quicker,” ETSU coach Randy Sanders said. “Maybe we should have run the ball.”
The Citadel improved to 6-4 overall, 4-2 in the SoCon and remained in the race for the league championship. The Bulldogs got two rushing touchdowns from Brandon Rainey and one from Nkem Njoku. Rainey, the team’s quarterback, has run for 16 touchdowns this season.
Rainey completed 4 of 6 passes for 154 yards. Mitchell was 14 of 25 for 204 yards.
ETSU out-gained The Citadel in total offense, 428-383.
The Bucs went punch-for-punch with The Citadel despite playing short-handed defensively.
Defensive end Nasir Player was sitting out the first half after being ejected last week for targeting. In addition, linebackers Jared Folks and Blake Bockrath were out with injuries.
In Player’s absence, Olajuwon Pinkleton took advantage of extended playing time and made nine tackles, all while Player was in the locker room during the first half. Safety Tyree Robinson also left with an inury in the first half, meaning the Bucs played large portions of the game without four of their best defensive players.
“I thought the team this week, we were being tested,” Sanders said. “Our character was being tested. Our integrity was being tested. Our pride was being tested. You can’t ask for any more from a group of young men than what these guys came out and did today.
“We’re short-handed. We got guys beat up, banged out, bruised up. We had a group of guys out there today that fought their butts off. I said ‘I need 11 on the field that will fight. I don’t care which 11. Give me 11.’ ”
Huzzie, the ESPN highlight hero in the Bucs’ loss at Chattanooga a couple of weeks ago, got the scoring started on ETSU’s opening drive with a 59-yard touchdown catch from Mitchell.
Mitchell found Huzzie open over the middle and the receiver bobbled the ball several times before finally securing it. Surprisingly, there weren’t any defenders close so he took off toward the right sideline and beat everybody to the end zone.
Huzzie’s leaping one-handed touchdown catch against Chattanooga was the No. 1 play on SportsCenter’s Top 10 plays that night.
Anthony Spagnoletti caught Mitchell’s second touchdown pass and it was no less spectacular.
On third-and-goal from the 6-yard line, Mitchell was under pressure and was forced to let the ball go early. Spagnoletti broke open on a fade pattern and was looking for the pass inside. The ball sailed toward the sideline and Spagnoletti spun his body around, caught the ball and somehow got a foot down before falling out of bounds.
It put the Bucs up 20-10 with 8:09 left in the third quarter.
It took the Bulldogs two minutes to get another touchdown, a 5-yard run by Nkem Njoku that cut ETSU’s lead to 20-17. Dante Smith set up the touchdown with a 49-yard run after an option pitch.
Mitchell’s third touchdown pass was a 2-yarder to fullback Jawan Martin, who has turned into quite a scoring threat. All three of Martin’s receptions this season have resulted in touchdowns and his latest gave ETSU a 27-17 lead.
After Rainey’s second 1-yard touchdown run cut the Bucs’ lead to 27-24, the Bulldogs got a stop — one that included a holding penalty and a dropped possible touchdown pass by Coffee — and then scored in two plays to take the lead. Raleigh Webb made a fingertip catch of Rainey’s long pass, kept his balance and scored on a 73-yard play. It gave The Citadel its first lead of the day, 31-27, with 4:18 left.
Tyler Keltner, ETSU’s reliable freshman kicker, was it it again. He made field goals of 35 and 21 yards in the first half, giving the Bucs the margin they needed to lead 13-10 at halftime.
The Citadel’s Jacob Godek added a 21-yard field goal in the first half.
ETSU plays at Western Carolina on Saturday. Kickoff is set for 3:30 p.m.