SoConversation: Week 12

SoConversation: Week 12

November 15th, 2012 by John Frierson in Local Regional News

Welcome to week 12 of the SoConversation, featuring The Citadel beat writer Jeff Hartsell of the Charleston Post and Courier, Elon beat writer Adam Smith of the Burlington Times-News and UTC beat writer John Frierson of the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

The SoConversation is proud to welcome guest Jason Yaman, the assistant commissioner of the Southern Conference, to this week's edition. Jason was at the Wofford-UTC game last Saturday and was nice enough to accept an invitation, with the blessing of commissioner John Iamarino, who, amazingly, still reads this thing.

Before we discuss what happened elsewhere in the SoCon last week, let's take a moment to go over what happened with the teams we cover. The Mocs lost another heartbreaker, this time in overtime at Wofford, The Citadel held off VMI in a game closer than most of us expected and Elon's struggles continued. Thoughts? And Jason, what was your take on the Wofford-UTC game?

JOHN: The Mocs put together an 18-play drive in the fourth quarter to tie the game at 10 and then stopped Wofford in the closing minutes to force overtime. After UTC had to settle for a field goal, you knew they were in trouble against that Terrier offense.

Sure enough, who else but Eric Breitenstein plowed his way into the end zone for the game-winning score. The Terriers got to celebrate a share of the SoCon title and the Mocs had to walk off the field after another close, crushing defeat.

It's a mystery how one team can lose so many close games. It may be time for UTC to hire some kind of voodoo expert to break whatever curse has been placed upon the Mocs. That or make sure their kickers are automatic from inside 30 yards.

JASON: First off, I want to thank you guys for the opportunity to join you this week - and thank you for your coverage of the SoCon through the year. As far as last week, the game in Spartanburg featured two really good defenses that put points at a premium. In this day and age of high-flying offenses at all levels of football, it was a nice contrast to watch a game where defense, field position, special teams and third-down conversions were key.

You couldn't help but be impressed with Jacob Huesman's execution on that late fourth-quarter drive to tie the game on the road against a team playing for a share of the conference championship. At the same time, Wofford's third string quarterback, James Lawson, acquitted himself very well when you consider everything that was on the line for the Terriers. His third-down run in overtime may have been the play of the game.

JEFF: I did not make the long drive to Lexington, Va., to witness The Citadel's 27-24 win over VMI, a victory that kept the coveted Silver Shako (is there any other kind?) in Charleston, and secured a winning record for the Bulldogs, their second in eight year s under Kevin Higgins.

I fully expected a blowout over struggling VMI, but un-Citadelesque (Citadelian?) penalties hampered the Bulldogs' efforts. I was eyewitness to the All-Military Classic, however, and can report that Citadel hoops should be improved this season.

ADAM: Hey, Frierson, does the old Blue Cooper poultry plant hex have any bearing here? Or has that been "cured" with the Mocs winning more under Russ Huesman? (Cooper, a colorful former Chattanooga receiver not just in name only, once joked during the Rodney Allison Era that the Mocs were cursed because they played across the street from where chickens were, um, processed).

Anyway, as for Elon, the Phoenix's slide reached six losses in the last seven games due to a slow start and too much Fabian Truss, who continues to add Elon clips to his personal highlight reel. The Samford back ran for a career-high 219 yards and two TDs. His previous best? That was a 191-yard effort to go along with three TDs during a defeat of Elon last year in Birmingham.

Elon's home finale became another game marked by disappointment and frustration - and another indicator of the work that lies ahead if the Phoenix is to play any sort of factor in future SoCon races.

Elon managed just 11 total yards on its first five possessions and went scoreless until the fourth quarter. It was painful on a literal level, too, with Samford sacking Elon QB Thomas Wilson five times before he left late in the game due to injuries.

Here are last week's results: Wofford def. UTC 16-13 (OT), Appalachian State def. Furman 33-28, Samford def. Elon 26-15, Georgia Southern routed Howard 69-26 and The Citadel def. VMI 27-24. What surprised you or caught your eye during week 11?

ADAM: Talk about the fine line of life in the SoCon - marketing material for Yaman and his homogenized crew of suits? - Wofford, at 6-2 and tied for first place in the league, has played three overtimes in the last two games. And the week before that, the Terriers had to fight through a scoreless second half to edge Citadel.

App State took care of business in dispatching Furman and now gets to enjoy a piece of its seventh SoCon title in the last eight years during its bye week before entering the FCS playoff field.

And a salute to Citadel for securing its second winning record in eight seasons under coach Kevin Higgins and, of course, for retaining the Silver Shako.

JEFF: Struck by Wofford's struggles down the stretch. The injury-riddled Terriers have not been the same team they were earlier in the season, nearly losing to The Citadel, losing at Samford and getting taken to OT by Chattanooga. I figured Furman would give App its best shot, and sounds like the Paladins sold out. Wonder how much they will have left for The Citadel in season finale?

Samford remains the SoCon's best-kept secret, and will have a compelling playoff case if they can beat Kentucky, which is entirely possible given the state of affairs in Lexington.

JASON: Samford won to give the Bulldogs a 5-3 league record, their best mark since joining the league in 2008. Regardless of location, records or rankings you can be assured that Furman and Appalachian State will play a close game - Jerry Moore said as much on the league's teleconference this week.

Georgia Southern's offense was in high gear against Howard, while The Citadel's defense shut the door on VMI for the win.

JOHN: Give Furman a lot of credit for going up to Boone and putting up a fight. It's been a tough season for the Paladins, but it took an ASU interception at the 5-yard line on the game's final play to seal the win - and a share of the SoCon title - for the Mountaineers.

A couple of other ASU thoughts from that game: linebacker Jeremy Kimbrough had 17 tackles, Steven Miller rushed for 170 yards, Jamal Jackson threw for 332 yards and Andrew Peacock and Sean Price both had double-digit catches and more than 100 yards receiving. Impressive.

This is SEC vs SoCon weekend, with four games between the neighboring conferences that have virtually nothing in common except geography. Western Carolina visits Alabama (noon, SEC Network), Wofford visits South Carolina (1 p.m.), Georgia Southern visits UGA (1:30 p.m.) and Samford visits Kentucky (7:30 p.m./CSS).

Which team has the best shot at staying within two touchdowns and which team do you pity for the abuse it's about to receive? Oh, and what are your thoughts on The Citadel at Furman (1:30 p.m./ESPN3) and Elon at UTC (2 p.m.)?

JOHN: The pity one is easy - Western Carolina. The one-win Catamounts were assuredly in for a rough afternoon when the Crimson Tide were undefeated. Now, after last week's loss to Texas A&M, Mark Speir might want to double up on padding.

Lord Saban is clearly not happy and he might not be satisfied until he has again tasted the blood of the conquered. This could be a 60-0 final.

In the other games, Pat Sullivan and his Samford squad should be thinking that they might be able to slide into Lexington and sneak away with a win. Kentucky's coach has been fired and basketball season has begun, so odds are nobody up there is thinking about football.

Don't be surprised if Georgia Southern hangs around against the Dogs for a quarter or so. Between the triple option and UGA's penchant for slow starts against lesser teams, Dogs fans might be a little antsy at halftime.

I think the Mocs close out a third winning season in the past four years with a solid performance and The Citadel wins a tight game at Paladin Stadium.

JEFF: Samford has a shot at Kentucky, and judging by The Citadel's game at USC last year, the Gamecocks won't waste a lot of practice time on the option and will rely on vastly superior talent on defense to get the job done. As John said, the Eagles will make Georgia squirm for a while. And as I said last year, I'm not a fan of these late-season mismatches, and WCU at 'Bama is a prime example.

Chatt will dispose of the Fighting Phoenix, though Merle Mellette will catch his quota. And Citadel at Furman is a 50-50 game, despite the Bulldogs' superior record. It's a rivarly game, and Furman would love to squash any vague hopes The Citadel has for a playoff bid.

ADAM: Unless Chattanooga checks out mentally after last week's deflating loss, Elon will finish a season with no more than three wins for the first time since 2005. It's almost impossible not to envision Davis Tull, Derrick Lott and the rest of that nasty Mocs defensive line making Saturday afternoon a rough one for Elon's thin offensive line and banged-up QB Thomas Wilson.

Citadel and Furman should be a close, evenly matched game. Shocking prediction there, huh? I'll take Citadel in a squeaker, which would get the Bulldogs to seven wins. In the last two decades at Citadel, only that magical 11-2 team from 1992 has posted more than seven victories.

On to the annual mid-November SEC / SoCon Challenge. Western Carolina has had two weeks to rest and prepare for Alabama, a fact that will have absolutely no impact on the outcome in Tuscaloosa.

Wofford has given South Carolina fits in these teams' last two meetings - 27-20 in 2006, 23-13 in 2008, both Gamecocks wins - but the Terriers' tank can't be full given the toll of recent weeks.

Not only is Kentucky's coaching staff on lame-duck status, the Samford game is a 7:30 kickoff, which won't be a crowd booster. Saturday is going to be date night in Lexington because the Kentucky hoops team plays Lafayette on Friday night. By the way, Alex Poythress and Nerlens Noel are freaks of nature.

JASON: SoCon teams put quite the scare into former SoCon teams last year. Georgia Southern scored more points and rushed for more yards than anyone Alabama faced all season. Furman was two scores up on Florida in the Swamp and was down just five in the third quarter while Samford trailed by just five into the fourth quarter at Auburn.

In terms of this weekend, Western Carolina was going to face a challenge no matter when the Catamounts caught the Tide. Samford heads to Lexington with momentum and Georgia Southern gives virtually everyone fits with the option. The Citadel travels to Greenville looking for its seventh Division I win which would put the Bulldogs in contention for a playoff berth.

It's the final Saturday of the regular season and that means it's time to say goodbye to some seniors that we've all gotten to know for the past four or five years. Who are a couple of guys on the team you cover or in the SoCon that you've enjoyed covering or will miss interacting with next fall?

JEFF: The Citadel's Rickey Anderson is a sixth-year senior and a special guy, coming back from three knee surgeries and a twice-broken leg in his career. He got some love on CBS during the USC-Arkansas game last weekend, when CBS interviewed USC RB coach Everette Sands about Marcus Lattimore. Sands, who coached Anderson at El Cid, referenced his story and said he had put the two star-crossed running backs together to talk.

Fullback Terrell Dallas is another good kid, but his comeback story did not turn out as well. He tore his ACL on his first carry last season, battled back, then broke a bone in his foot when he suffered a seizure this season. He's okay, but his football career is over. The Boyle brothers, Austin and Davis, were always fun to talk to, when I could figure out who was who. And I think DE Chris Billingslea made it through his whole career without uttering a curse word.

JOHN: The Mocs only have seven seniors on their roster - four are starters - and they have another six redshirt juniors that will call it a career after Saturday's game.

The four starters from the senior class - RT Adam Miller, RB J.J. Jackson, LB Shane Heatherly and DE Josh Williams - have all been great to deal with. I know Heatherly didn't want to talk to me after last week's crushing loss, but he did and offered more than just short, monotone answers.

Miller, Jackson and Heatherly, as well as backup lineman Dustin Tate, are the last of the players signed by Rodney Allison. They were redshirting during that rough 1-11 season in 2008 and helped rebuild a once-proud program. They had plenty of reason to be cynical or bitter at some point, but I never saw it.

JASON: One drawback to working in a conference office is that you don't get to form the same connection with the student-athletes that you do working in an athletic department - or covering them as part of the local media. So while I'm a little removed from them in the league office, guys like Eric Breitenstein, Jeremy Kimbrough, Aaron Mellette, Brent Russell, Jerodis Williams, Josh Williams and Rock Williams are players that I've watched have a major impact on their respective programs.

Additionally, the group of fifth-year seniors at Samford are players who helped them assimilate into the SoCon and is their first five-year class to have played their entire career in the league. The senior class at The Citadel has helped bring that program through the offensive transition and is guaranteed a winning record in their final season.

ADAM: As if Aaron Mellette hasn't sacrificed enough of his time for me already, I plan on bunking with him next summer during NFL training camp season. So no goodbyes are necessary yet for Merle.

Elon's other nine seniors all have treated me fantastically at every turn, and I'm very appreciative for it. Sure, covering the SoCon isn't the big time, but you get to know people on an intimate level, which really is rewarding. (I'll save the story of how Pete Lembo and I became best friends for later).

Quarterback Thomas Wilson, defensive lineman Olufemi Lamikanra and kicker Adam Shreiner are great guys who are some of my favorites. I have respect for the way Wilson has handled carving his own path amid the shadow of former Elon star Scott Riddle, the SoCon's all-time leading passer.

To me, linebacker Blake Thompson has been the best to deal with. Thoughtful and real, never afraid to say something. A grown man no matter what, even when he got ejected at Furman last year.

In 2010, Wofford beat Elon on a last-second prayer, a jump-ball pass to Devin Reed that Elon had double-covered but still somehow slipped through the cracks for a stunning touchdown. Thompson, then a sophomore safety, was one of the defenders on that play. He sucked back tears and, just like always, answered every question that day.

We're heading toward the holidays and the gift-giving time of year. What's the best sports-related gift you've ever given or received?

JASON: As a senior at Indiana University, I took Bob Knight's "Coaching Theory of Basketball" class. And while I could regale you with plenty of stories from that semester, the point is that around that time IU installed a new court at Assembly Hall and sold off sections of the old floor.

I had a photo of coach Knight and a section of the floor framed together and he autographed it at the end of the semester. I gave it to my father and he has it displayed in his house. And in case you were wondering - The General gave me an "A" in the class.

ADAM: Is a college romance with a very giving club volleyball player sports-related enough?

Never mind. Strike that. Or spike that. Either way, moving on ...

I was either 7 or 8 and fired up beyond belief when my aunt told me she was taking me - just me - to a North Carolina/N.C. State basketball game. Back then, Duke had yet to fully become Duke under Coach K and the rivalry between the Tar Heels and Wolfpack was great, as it still remains.

Convinced that I would be on TV, I took along a poster board that my mom and I had turned into a sign. But we never made it to old Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh.

On the way there I got sick and started barfing all over my aunt's car, a sweet little Triumph convertible called a TR7 Spider that was loved by everybody in our family.

Sorry, Aunt Pam.

Still, though, it was a most memorable gift.

JEFF: I can't remember if it was a Christmas gift, but I spent hours with my dad playing Foto-Electric Football (http://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/14163/foto-electric-football). It was a box with a light bulb in it and a football field laid out on top. Offense and defense had "play cards," which the "coach" of each team laid on top of each other on the board. You pulled out a sliding board to reveal the result of the play and moved a marker up and down the field.

Honestly, it was a lot more fun than I've made it sound here.

JOHN: I come from a tennis family. The way football was surely the center of everything for the Mannings as kids, that's what tennis was for the Friersons. My two brothers and I played all the time and my father taught lessons after work.

This may be more of a fashion thing than a sports thing, but there's a photo at my parents' house that shows a Christmas morning from around 1981. My brothers (twins) were around 11 and I would have been nine, and Joe and I are decked out head to toe in that awesome Bjorn Borg Fila gear from that time, including the headband, while Jack has the full John McEnroe/Sergio Tacchini look going. (Fun fact: my dad was the chair umpire when McEnroe won the NCAA singles title in 1978.)

The smiles on our faces show how happy we are. Those were the days of short shorts without shame. It was a simpler time, a more innocent time. Sigh.

If you've got a question, e-mail the writers at jhartsell@postandcourier.com, asmith@thetimesnews.com or jfrierson@timesfreepress.com. The guys are also on Twitter: @Jeff_fromthePC, @adam_smithTN and @MocsbeatCTFP.