Charleston Southern is moving on to the quarterfinals of the FCS Playoffs. A dominant defensive effort made sure of it. CSU forced six turnovers and stifled The Citadel's triple option attack for the second time this year to persevere for a 14-6 victory in front of a record crowd of 8,451 fans at Buccaneer Field.
CSU's (10-2) fourth straight win over The Citadel (9-4) sets up a date with top-seeded Jacksonville State next weekend. The triumph also matches the CSU record for wins in a single season.
CSU stonewalled a Citadel offense that rolled up 350 and 524 yards rushing in wins over South Carolina and Coastal Carolina. The Bucs limited the Bulldogs to 199 yards rushing and less than four yards per carry, showing the form that made them the top defense in FCS for much of the year. Solomon Brown led a group of defensive stalwarts that delivered clutch performances, finishing with 15 tackles, 1.5 tackles-for-loss and a sack. Brown's strip sack of Citadel quarterback Dominique Allen set up CSU's second touchdown and a 14-3 lead.
Mike Holloway was the source of both CSU touchdowns. Holloway broke several tackles on his way to a 41-yard touchdown run to give the Bucs the lead for good. He added a 32-yard scamper up the middle following Brown's brilliant play. Danny Croghan III led both of those scoring drives at quarterback and played much of the game in relief of Austin Brown and Kyle Copeland, both of whom left with injuries.
CSU head coach Jamey Chadwell was proud of a gutsy effort, and another extraordinary defensive effort.
"We'll take the win," Chadwell said after leading CSU to a win in its playoff debut. "I tell you what; it was an interesting ball game, to say the least. The way that game went, it could have went the other way, but our guys kept believing and kept fighting. They've got a good football team. Our defense made enough plays for us to get some turnovers, and did what they've done all year."
"I think that's the sign of a good team, really a great team, when you don't play well, you find a way to win," Chadwell continued. "There was never a doubt on that sideline that we weren't gonna find a way to win the game. How you respond to adversity is really what type of character you have, and our team responded."
CSU's defense responded time and time again to overcome the fact that its offense produced only 199 yards. The last in a string of stops and big plays came on 4th-and-3 with 2:30 remaining, when Brown and fellow linebacker Jermichael Bailey sandwiched Allen inches shy of the first down marker on an option keeper. CSU was then able to get one first down to run time off the clock, and sealed the win by recovering a fumble on Citadel's last ditch final play.
Eric Goins' 43-yard field goal gave The Citadel a 3-0 lead midway through the first quarter, and the Bulldogs had a chance for more moments later thanks to a Malik Diggs interception. Set up at the CSU 19-yard line, though, The Citadel could not convert the pick into points. Instead, Solomon Brown pressured Allen into a wobbling pass that was picked off by Aaron Brown.
The second of four forced first half turnovers propelled CSU in front. Anthony Ellis penetrated into the backfield to disrupt the rhythm of an option pitch, and Zack Johnson pounced on the football to give CSU possession at its own 34-yard line at the 8:52 mark of the second quarter. Croghan found Colton Korn on a 21-yard catch and run to get CSU's offensive moving, and Holloway did the rest. Holloway got outside for first down yardage, and then made several defenders miss before reversing field and hurdling over the goal line.
Solomon Brown made the defensive play of the day with Citadel near midfield late in the first half. Brown swam around Citadel fullback Isiaha Smith, locked onto the quarterback Allen for a sack, and ripped the football out of his hands to give CSU possession. The Bucs struck quickly again, with Croghan first hitting tight end Nathan Prater for a 12-yard strike. Holloway took over from there, bursting up the middle for his fifth touchdown of the year against The Citadel
Holloway's program single-season record 10th and 11th rushing touchdowns allowed CSU to enter halftime on top, 14-3. That meant a lot considering the injuries at quarterback and shuffling on the offensive line.
"Mike's had probably two of his best games versus those guys," Chadwell said. "He's a special talent. Those two plays he made there, when we were just struggling and were awful, he made a couple of plays to get us a lead. As bad as that first half was for us offensively, we survived."
"Danny coming in here had not played in a while and was able to lead us to a couple of touchdowns and give us enough points to try to find a way to hold on," continued Chadwell. "Credit to him and his composure and leadership. The guys in that huddle have a lot of respect for him, and it showed."
CSU's defense swarmed into the backfield again to force a fourth Citadel fumble early in the third quarter. This time, Johnson deflected an option pitch and Ellis recovered at The Citadel 36 to give the Bucs a chance at a knockout blow. Citadel's defense held though, and forced three-and-outs on all three CSU third quarter series to stay in the game.
The Citadel pieced together a 13-play drive that took 6:33 to draw within one score early in the fourth quarter. Cam Jackson keyed the march with a seven-yard gain on a 4th-and-2 play at the CSU 34. Citadel did not get much further, though, and had to settle for a 39-yard Goins field goal following a costly penalty and an Ellis tackle-for-loss.
On its biggest stage, CSU's defense put forth a big-time showing. Aaron Brown, the Bucs' leading tackler each of the last two years, posted 12 tackles. Junior nose guard Caleb Batchelor notched 11 tackles and 0.5 tackles-for-loss, while Ellis added eight and one, respectively.
"It came down to the defenses and our Blue Swarm is pretty good," Chadwell said. "I think our guys have a great confidence. These guys think we have a championship team in that locker room. We're ready to continue to march on."
CSU will meet Jacksonville State next Friday or Saturday in one of four FCS Playoff quarterfinal matchups. The game time will be announced on Sunday morning.