CHARLESTON, S.C. - Charleston Southern makes the trek to Boiling Springs, N.C. on Saturday afternoon for a Big South showdown against Gardner-Webb on College Football Down South. Kickoff between the Bucs and the Runnin' Bulldogs is set for 1:30 p.m. Here are three things to watch heading into the contest.
Charleston Southern's defense will have its hands full this weekend as the Buccaneers will look to contain reigning Big South Offensive Player of the Year Tyrell Maxwell as a key to this weekend's matchup against the Runnin' Bulldogs. Maxwell broke loose last season in handing CSU its only Big South loss in 2016 with 360 total yards and a pair of touchdowns as Gardner-Webb topped the Buccaneers 17-10 on November 5.
Maxwell was the first Gardner-Webb player to be voted the Big South's Preseason Offensive Player of the Year after receiving the recognition at Media Day this year. He was a Walter Payton Award Finalist and a Hero Sports All-American in 2016 after becoming the first quarterback in Big South history to lead the league in rushing with 965 yards. Maxwell was a three-time Big South Player of the Week honoree last season and set the conference season record with five games of 100+ yards rushing & passing. He tallied 32 explosive plays (20+ yards) last year, which included the longest rush from scrimmage by a quarterback in league annals (87-yard TD run against Presbyterian, Oct. 8). Maxwell led the conference in total offense (2,622) and total offense per game (238.4), was 131-of-235 passing for 1,657 yards and nine touchdowns, and averaged 5.7 yards per rush with eight rushing scores.
He scored a rushing TD in eight of 11 games last season, had a TD pass streak of six contests and posted two TD runs of 50-plus yards as well as four pass plays of 60 yards or longer. In five Big South games, Maxwell averaged 302 yards of offense, rushed for 591 yards (6.5 per carry) and was 64-of-106 passing in leading the Runnin' Bulldogs to their first winning conference season (3-2) since 2003.
This season Maxwell once again finds his place among the conference leaders in both passing and rushing on the season as the senior quarterback is averaging 205.1 total offensive yards per game. Maxwell's 673 rushing yards leads the Big South and his 84.1 rushing yards per game are second in the conference rankings. Maxwell is also third in the conference in passing yards with 121.0 per game and six touchdowns.
The Bucs contained Maxwell in the first two matchups against the Gardner-Webb quarterback in both the 2014 and 2015 seasons. CSU limited Maxwell to 24 passing yards and zero rushing yards in 2014, and then added 38 passing yards and 39 rushing yards in 2015, prior to last season's breakout performance.
Key to CSU's success against Maxwell this weekend will be the Buccaneers experienced front seven led by Big South Preseason Defensive Player of the Year Anthony Ellis and Johnny Robinson. Ellis paces the Bucs with 5.5 sacks this season and is second on the team with 7.0 tackles for loss. Robinson, after a 3.0 tackle for loss game this past weekend, leads the Bucs and is third in the conference with 7.5 tackles for loss on the season.
J.D. Sosebee (56 tackles) and Zane Cruz (34 tackles) will be tasked with spying into the backfield against Maxwell, while Solomon Brown will look to continue his late-season surge after posting 2.5 sacks and an interception two weeks ago against Savannah State. Demetri Royer will also be involved in both the run and pass defense for the Bucs in the contest after posting his fourth double-digit tackle effort of 2017 this past weekend against Monmouth.
Continuing Road Success
You would have to go back nearly four seasons to find the last time Charleston Southern fell to a Big South opponent on the road. The Buccaneers' road conference winning streak reached eight earlier this season following CSU's 7-0 win in Clinton, S.C. against Presbyterian.
The last time CSU drew a loss on the road against a Big South foe, Coastal Carolina pulled away in a 43-22 win over the Buccaneers in Conway, S.C. Coastal Carolina scored on its first three drives of the second half to break open a tight game at halftime on October 25, 2014, at Brooks Stadium, 43-22. Coastal quarterback Alex Ross threw three touchdown passes – two to John Israel – to break open what was a two-point game late in the second quarter. Ross was 12-of-17 for 276 yards and three touchdowns. Running back De'Angelo Henderson added 12 carries for 110 yards and three touchdowns. Israel caught touchdown passes of 74 and 52 yards to give Coastal a pair of long touchdowns.
Since then, the Bucs have gone 8-0 against Big South foes including a trio of shutouts over the last three years. CSU has outscored the opposition 227-90 on the road in accumulating the longest road conference winning streak in Big South history. The Bucs' mark topped Liberty's seven-game winning streak set over the 2006-09 seasons.
Among CSU's wins during the stretch includes the Bucs 34-0 victory in their last trip to Spangler Stadium on October 24, 2015. Austin Brown threw a career-high three touchdown passes and the Buccaneers' defense held a third consecutive opponent under 150 total yards in pitching their first shutout of the season as No. 20 Charleston Southern rolled through Gardner-Webb.
In the game, CSU held Gardner-Webb to 110 total yards – 20 in the second half – and only allowed the Bulldogs six snaps in Buccaneer territory. The defense piled up nine tackles for loss and freshman linebacker Solomon Brown returned an interception 28 yards for a touchdown as the Bucs' defense outscored the offense it shut down all day. The 110 total yards allowed was a record for a CSU defense against an FCS opponent.
The Bucs are already 1-0 this season on the road with a win at Presbyterian on October 14. Noah Shuler scored the go-ahead touchdown with 3:43 left in the fourth quarter and Charleston Southern overcame a strong defensive effort by Presbyterian on Saturday afternoon as the Buccaneers held on to win the Big South opener for both teams, 7-0.
Solomon Brown came up with the play of the game as the redshirt junior linebacker forced a fumble at the PC 15-yard line that was recovered by Landon Sayegh. Four plays later Shuler carried the ball into the end zone on the dive up the middle to give CSU a lead the Bucs would not relinquish.
Hold onto the Ball
A troubling habit has occurred over the last six games for Charleston Southern as the Buccaneers have turned the ball over 12 times (eight fumbles, four interceptions). Eight of those turnovers have come in the last three weeks, including five against Presbyterian and Monmouth in conference play. While the 12 turnovers are problematic, it is still below what CSU recorded in 2016 when the Bucs coughed the ball up 20 times and posted a minus-three turnover margin on the year.
CSU has mostly overcome its turnovers this season; however, the Bucs' misfortunes have come at inopportune times against both Presbyterian and Monmouth. CSU lost fumbles twice in Presbyterian territory, including once inside the 10-yard line against the Blue Hose to end potential scoring drives. CSU also threw an interception at the PC 20 to end another scoring opportunity.
This past weekend against Monmouth, a turnover directly led to the eventual game-winning score in the 23-20 CSU loss to the Hawks. The Bucs threw a pair of interceptions in the contest with Gerron Pendarvis returning the ball 21 yards for a touchdown to give Monmouth the 23-0 lead two plays into the second half.
Gardner-Webb has struggled to take the ball away in 2017 with the Runnin' Bulldogs defense only posting five turnovers on the season. Gardner-Webb has recovered three fumbles and has two interceptions on the year to sit last among conference teams in turnovers gained. Presbyterian (eight turnovers gained) and Liberty (12 turnovers gained) are in the bottom three this season.