Junior running back Christian Reyes rushed for 181 yards and set the school single-season rushing record to carry Charleston Southern to a 36-14 win over Charlotte on Saturday at Buccaneer Field.
The Buccaneers, now 8-1, move within a win of the CSU school record of nine in a season. CSU closes out its non-conference schedule and now will finish the season with four straight Big South games. Charlotte moves to 4-4 on the year.
CSU continued its outstanding start under first-year head coach Jamey Chadwell before a sellout crowd of over 4,300 fans at Buccaneer Field. The Bucs bounced back from its first loss of the season to defeat a Charlotte team that will move up to the FBS and Conference USA in 2015.
"Coming off of a loss last week and with our young quarterbacks, we weren't sure how this team would respond, so we're really pleased with the victory," Chadwell said. "The Homecoming crowd was a big influence. This was the first time a lot of these people were able to see what we were about. There is an energy, a spirit around campus, and the stands have been packed. It's been great to see."
Reyes set the record on his opening carry of the game, a 14-yard run to set the tone and quickly grab the three yards he needed to move into the record books. CSU's offensive line was far from finished, though. The Bucs piled up a season-high 375 yards rushing and averaged 6.1 yards per carry to wear down the 49ers. Freshman quarterback Danny Croghan III again showcased his strong arm in returning to the lineup after missing last week's game at Colorado, completing 15-of-22 passes for 173 yards and two touchdowns. CSU tallied a season-high 548 yards of total offense and held the football for 41:22.
Charlotte was still within 21-14 entering the fourth quarter, but CSU' s defense came up with a safety and forced two turnovers to lead the Bucs to 15 unanswered points and cement the victory.
"Our defense has played really well," said Chadwell of a unit that held Charlotte to 81 yards rushing and 3-of-12 on third-down conversions. "They've really stepped up. They've forced some turnovers and made some big plays. Charlotte has been averaging 34 points a game, and to be able to shut them down like we did in the second half says a lot about the way the defense played today."
CSU appeared poised to move ahead by two touchdowns early in the fourth quarter, but Croghan was stripped while trying to reach the ball across the goal line on third and goal and Charlotte recovered at the three-yard line. The Bucs defense came with an immediate response, as freshman defensive lineman Caleb Batchelor took down Charlotte's Alan Barnwell in the end zone for a safety to push the CSU lead to 23-14.
A pair of late turnovers by the 49ers helped the Buccaneers put the game away. The first came after Charlotte recovered the football on the free punt following the safety, as Johnson was picked off by CSU senior linebacker Adam Witzmann at the Charlotte 28-yard line. Four plays later, freshman quarterback Kyle Copeland turned the corner off left tackle and into the end zone on the option keeper, giving the Bucs a 30-14 advantage with 5:09 remaining in the game.
The second turnover, a fumble caused by Zac Johnston at the Charlotte 19, was recovered by Batchelor. Three plays later, freshman Michael Holloway took the pitch around the right end and outraced everyone to the pylon from five yards to provide the final 36-14 margin. It was the first touchdown of Holloway's career, as the Atlanta, Ga. native again proved himself to be a solid complement to Reyes, rushing for 81 yards on ten carries.
Reyes still played the leading role, posting his fourth 100-yard rushing effort of the season. He now has 953 yards on the campaign, and was quick to deflect praise to a young offensive line that has fueled the Bucs' offensive production.
"It was great setting the record at home," Reyes said. "Doing it at homecoming was special. The stands were packed and they got to see how well we've been playing this season. The o-line has been great all season, and was able to move guys again today. They created big holes for me to run through."
The Buccaneers' kicking game struggled in the first half, missing two field goal attempts, but the Charleston Southern offense continued to move the ball early, marching down the field on a 10-play, 63 yard drive behind Copeland and Reyes. The duo combined for 65 rushing yards on the drive before Copeland found the end zone on a three-yard quarterback keeper up the middle with 12:20 remaining in the first half. Copeland also took the ensuing snap on the extra point attempt, carrying the ball in over the right tackle for the two-point conversion to give the Buccaneers the 8-7 lead.
The score held there until Croghan came back off the bench to orchestrate a nine-play, 82-yard touchdown drive right before halftime. Croghan connected on 5-of-8 passes on the drive for 84 yards, hooking up with Kevin Glears on the 39 yard touchdown pitch-and-catch with eight seconds remaining before the half to send the Buccaneers into the locker room with the 15-7 halftime lead. Croghan hooked up on two key third down conversions on the march, highlighted by a 25-yard strike to freshman Colton Korn on third-and-15 from the CSU 24-yard line.
Both teams scored on their opening possessions in the second half as the Buccaneers took over after receiving the opening kickoff. CSU used a strong return from Darius Hammond to open the half, taking over at its own 42-yard line and leaning on six carries from Reyes to move the ball deep into 49ers' territory. Croghan found a wide-open Chris Theodore over the middle for a 14-yard touchdown to finish the drive, pushing the CSU lead to 21-7.
Charlotte responded with its longest drive of the game on their ensuing possession as Matt Johnson connected with five different receivers before Kalif Phillips found the end zone for the second time in the game. Johnson set up the scoring play with a 26-yard pass to Trent Bostick on 3rd-and-22 from the CSU 40-yard line.
CSU returns to the road next Saturday, traveling to take on Presbyterian at Bailey Memorial Stadium in Clinton, South Carolina. Kickoff between the Bucs and Blue Hose is scheduled for 2 p.m.