CHARLESTON, S.C. – Charleston Southern (4-5, 2-2) comes back home this Saturday to host the Gardner-Webb Bulldogs (2-7, 1-3) for Senior Day as the Bucs’ will compete in their final home game of the season with the kickoff scheduled for 1:30 p.m.
CSU is coming off a 26-12 loss to the Liberty Flames. At halftime, the Bucs trailed 13-6, but in the second half, Liberty was able to pull away by leaning on their run-game and stopping the Bucs’ rushing attack from gaining any kind of momentum or rhythm. The loss snapped CSU’s three-game winning streak, the longest winning streak since 2009. With a win against Gardner-Webb, however, the Bucs will extend their home winning streak to four games.
Game Notes l ESPN3 Link l Football Live Stats
Head coach of the CSU football team, Jay Mills spoke on playing at home, “It’s always a sense of security when you get the chance to play in front of your home fans. You really want to put on a good show and I think that’s something that resonates with our guys.”
The Bulldogs got off to a slow start in 2012 with a five-game losing streak to start the season. Gardner-Webb has won two of their last four games, beating Mid America Nazarene and VMI. Most recently, the Bulldogs lost at home to Coastal Carolina 55-33.
Mills believes that the Bulldogs’ record does not tell the whole story, “They’re record is definitely misleading. They’re a very good football team. They’ve played a tough schedule, in non-conference as well as the conference teams they have played already.”
Saturday will mark the twelfth all-time meeting between the Bucs and Bulldogs. Gardner-Webb has control of the all-time series with an 8-3 record. The game will be a mix of contrasting styles on offense. CSU brings out a run-heavy, pound-it-out type of offense while Gardner-Webb looks to throw the football whenever possible.
Last year’s matchup with these two teams was a low scoring affair in Boiling Springs, North Carolina. After the game was knotted at seven at the half, the Bulldogs took advantage of two CSU turnovers and scored a fourth quarter touchdown to claim a 14-7 victory over the Bucs.
For some Bucs, Saturday will be the last time they compete on the gridiron at Buccaneer Field. The game against Gardner-Webb will be Senior-Day as CSU watches 11 of its players compete at home for the last time.
“The thing I appreciate about this senior class is that they’ve been through it all. They are great quality young men. They have provided great leadership for us this year,” commented Mills earlier in the week. “These guys are the main reason this is a close-knit team and that close-knit nature has helped us have the success and resurgence of Buccaneer football.
The senior-class is led by Charles James who came to CSU as a walk-on and will leave as one of the top cornerbacks to wear a CSU uniform. James is one interception shy of breaking the CSU career-interception record with 12 picks.
The defensive line is loaded with talented seniors. Isaac McKenzie leads the way on the front line with a team-leading 5.5 tackles for loss. Cornelius Sterling made the transition from linebacker to defensive end just this past spring. The senior out of Orlando, Florida has excelled at his new position as the year has gone on, recording a season-high nine tackles last week against Liberty.
The offensive side of the football will also have several key players making their last appearance in front of a crowd at Buccaneer Field. Chase Jones and Mike Davis have been two of the most versatile players for the Bucs this season. Both have lined up at wide receiver, in the backfield and they both have attempted at least one pass this season. Jones leads the team with 16 receptions while Davis has run for almost 200 yards and one touchdown.
Center, Nick Kemper has had a career filled with consistent improvement. Two seasons ago, Kemper was selected as the most improved lineman. Last year, the Winter Springs, Florida native played in nine games and earned six starts. Then in his senior-campaign, Kemper has started in every game.
The Charleston Southern seniors are as follows: Charles James, Corvaughn Archie, Chase Jones, Mike Davis, Cornelius Sterling, Kenny Johnson, Jacque Carter, Isaac McKenzie, Michael Chocholousek, Austin Wald, and Jason Edmonds.
For the first time in almost a month, the Bucs struggled to move the football on the ground. Last week against Liberty, CSU gained 122 rushing yards after averaging over 300 rushing yards in the previous three games. Malcom Dixon connected with Kirby Broome for a 41-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter, but the Bucs did not score again until Dixon ran into the endzone from five yards out in the final minutes of the game. Teddy Allen, who had picked up over 200 yards in the previous two games, was held to only 39 yards rushing and no touchdowns. Allen remains at seven rushing touchdowns on the season, two touchdowns away from matching the Charleston Southern-record set by Collin Drafts in 2005.
Last Saturday’s game did have a few bright spots for the Bucs on offense. Dixon continued with his efficiency throwing the football. The junior-quarterback went 10-of-15 for 184 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions. In the last four games, Dixon has gone 26-of-35 for 491 yards with five touchdowns and has not committed any turnovers. Freshman-wide out, Larry Jones III had four catches for 93 yards. The Jacksonville, Florida native has now caught 11 passes for 281 yards and three touchdowns in the last four games. In that span, Jones III has won the Big South Freshman Player of the Week award twice.
Gardner-Webb has a different approach from CSU. The Bulldogs are almost 50-50 when it comes to running the ball versus using the passing game, but the pass has been much more effective. With a redshirt-sophomore, Lucas Beatty, under center, the Bulldogs are averaging 240 yards per game through the air (second in the Big South behind Coastal Carolina) while only averaging 98.8 yards per game on the ground which is sixth in the Big South in front of only VMI.
“Offensively they pose one of the biggest challenges that we’ll see all year,” acknowledged Mills. “They’ve always been known for their defense and they have very good defensive players, but what’s really happened is they found an offense that has been outstanding the last few weeks.”
Beatty is first in the league in passing yards per game (238.1) by throwing for over 2,000 yards but has shown a tendency to take too many chances. In his second season as a starter, Beatty is third in the conference in passing efficiency but has also thrown ten interceptions, the most in the Big South. He has also shown the ability to spread the ball around extremely well to multiple receivers. Four different wide outs have at least 25 catches on the season while six have made double-digit receptions. Beatty’s main target, however, has been Kenny Cook, a transfer from Garden City Community College in Kansas. Cook has 40 catches (fourth in the Big South) for 571 yards (third in the Big South) and five touchdowns (second in the Big South). At 6’4” and 215 pounds, Cook is a big, athletic target that will likely draw the assignment of Charles James at cornerback.
In the running game, look for the Bulldogs to use a duo of running backs. Redshirt-sophomore, Juanne Blount and Redshirt-senior, Kenny Little will carry the load on the ground. Both runners have carried the football over 100 times this season while together they are averaging slightly over 100 yards per game.
Saturday will be a huge contrast in offensive styles. Look for the Bulldogs to try to score quickly and often with the passing game, while the Bucs will try to control the ball and the clock by pounding the ball on the ground. A good start is key for CSU. If the Bucs can control the tempo with the ground game, the Bucs will thrive. If Gardner-Webb jumps out early, it will be extremely difficult for CSU to make up ground quickly with an offense that is not built for fast scores.
According to Mills, patience will be key on Saturday, “We have to be persistent and patient, knowing that with our style of offense we could go three yards, two yards, four yards and then break one for 30 yards too.”
The CSU defense struggled to slow down the running game from Liberty last week. The Flames picked up 302 yards on the ground with Aldreakis Allen leading the way with 179 yards and three scores. The good news is that, in this week’s matchup, Gardner-Webb will lean on their passing game, and the pass-defense of the Bucs has been a strong point for most of the season. The Bucs allowed 12 completions in 19 attempts last week, but the 12 completions only went for 102 yards.
Junior-safety, Elijah Lee has emerged has one of the top defensive players in the Big South. Lee leads the Bucs with 58 tackles and is in the Big South’s top-10 for tackles per game. Redshirt-freshman, Zack Johnson is close behind Lee with 55 tackles including 3.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble from his linebacker spot. On the defensive line, Will Hunt and Cornelius Sterling are two of the toughest defensive ends to block. Sterling had one of his best games of the season against the Flames, making nine tackles.
Gardner-Webb’s defense has struggled this season. The Bulldogs are last in the Big South in points allowed per game (38.6) and next-to-last in total defense (457.4 yards allowed per game). Tanner Burch, a sophomore middle-linebacker, leads the conference with 113 tackles. The next closest in tackles on Gardner-Webb is Brian Wittenberger, an outside-linebacker. Despite, the struggles of Gardner-Webb to slow down opposing offenses, they have shown the ability to force turnovers. The Bulldogs are second in the league with 15 takeaways (eight fumbles recovered, seven interceptions).
CSU’s defense versus the Gardner-Webb offense will be an intriguing matchup on Saturday. Something has to give with the second-best passing offense in the league (Bulldogs – 240 yards per game) and the Big South’s top passing defense (Bucs – 153.8 yards allowed per game) lining up. CSU has to apply pressure to Beatty in order to slow down the Bulldog’s pass-attack. Gardner-Webb has allowed more sacks (28) than any other team in the league. If the Bucs can get to him, look for Beatty to try to force quick throws in tight coverage in an effort to slow the pressure applied by CSU. With the aggressive, blitzing style of CSU defensive-coordinator Shawn Quinn, the best matchup might be the one-on-one coverage with senior-cornerback Charles James covering Cook. James is still in search of one more interception to make 12 in his career, which would break CSU’s career-interception record.
It was a sight for sore eyes when James went back deep to return punts against Liberty. James had not returned a punt since the game against Illinois in week three because of a cast covering an injured hand. James had to fair catch all but one punt against the Flames, but the Bucs threatening return-man will give CSU a slight edge in special teams against Gardner-Webb who has allowed two special teams touchdowns this season.
Neither team has shown consistency in the kicking game. CSU missed another extra point last week making them 16-for-22 on PATs. The six missed extra points are the most in the Big South. The Bulldogs have had struggles in the same area. Gardner-Webb has missed three extra points (21-24) and six field goals (7-13). Expect both of these teams to push the envelope on fourth down when driving deep in their opponent’s territory.