RALEIGH — A final score, scrolling across the bottom of the television, is all The Citadel needed to get N.C. State’s attention.
N.C. State quarterback Mike Glennon saw the score from the Bulldogs’ trip to Appalachian State last Saturday: a 52-28 win over the perennial Football Championship Subdivision power.
“They put a real beating on App State last week,” Glennon said. “We’re definitely taking them very serious.”
The Citadel (3-0) is off to its best start since 1992 with wins over the Mountaineers, Georgia Southern and Charleston Southern. A switch to the triple option has paid off for the Bulldogs and coach Kevin Higgins, whose team hasn’t finished better than 4-8 since 2007.
The Citadel had three 100-yard rushers against Appalachian State, gaining 463 rushing yards as a team and 618 total yards of offense, which impressed N.C. State’s defense.
“If you put up 600 yards, you are running by somebody,” N.C. State safety Brandon Bishop said.
The Citadel is 0-27 against ACC teams since the conference’s formation and has lost 23 consecutive to Division I-A opponents dating back to 1992. Neither stat means much to N.C. State coach Tom O’Brien, not after the way the Bulldogs have started.
“They are playing great right now,” O’Brien said. “They will certainly come here thinking they can whoop us.”
O’Brien referenced N.C. State’s experience against Georgia Tech, which runs a similar offense to the triple option Higgins decided to adopt before the 2010 season.
The Pack beat Georgia Tech 45-28 in 2010 with a memorable defensive effort from linebacker Nate Irving, who had 16 tackles, but lost to the Yellow Jackets last season 45-35 at Carter-Finley Stadium, after giving up 296 rushing yards.
N.C. State used a practice day during August, at the defense’s request, to work on stopping the option. The offensive scheme has evolved since powers like Nebraska and Oklahoma ran it out of the wishbone formation in the 1970s, but the concepts to defend it remain the same.
“Assignment football” is how defensive coordinator Mike Archer described it, which is another way of saying man-on-man defense.
The biggest key is to play the man, and avoid the temptation to follow the ball, Archer said.
“If you’ve got the fullback, you’ve got to tackle the fullback,” Archer said. “If you’ve got the quarterback, you’ve got to take him.”
Archer said The Citadel’s success has come on big plays this season. The Bulldogs have five touchdown runs of 27 yards or more. Quarterback Ben Dupree leads the team with 349 rushing yards. Running backs Darien Robinson, who averages 8.3 yards per carry, and Rickey Anderson (9.2) have also found running room.
Two years ago against Georgia Tech, Irving had one of the best games of his career at middle linebacker, stopping the Jackets’ dive play to the fullback. Archer said middle linebacker Sterling Lucas will have the same responsibility and will need to have a big game to beat The Citadel.
Linebackers Rodman Noel, Brandon Pittman and Rickey Dowdy also need to make tackles on the outside when the quarterback pitches the ball. And the defensive linemen have to “eat up” blocks, Archer said.
“They’ve got to let the linebackers run. That’s the whole key, linebackers have to make plays against the (option),” Archer said.
“If your secondary is making tackles, which happened to us against Georgia Tech last year, you’re not going to win.”
O’Brien said his defense will need to be mentally strong. The Citadel’s offense is built on repetition and the challenge of stopping the same play over and over.
“Hopefully, we’re smart enough on defense to understand, after trying to defend this offense the last two years, that this isn’t easy,” O’Brien said.