CHARLESTON, SC - A year ago in Statesboro, The Citadel fell just shy of a victory over Georgia Southern when the Bulldogs misfired on a 37-yard field goal with 13 seconds remaining. This year the story had a different ending.
Thomas Warren drilled a field goal from the same distance as last year's miss with 35 seconds showing on the clock, and The Citadel survived a 31-yard attempt by Georgia Southern's Ryan Nowicki on the final play of the game to give the Bulldogs a 23-21 victory over the third-ranked Eagles in the Southern Conference opener for both teams.
The Citadel is 2-0 for the first time 2007 while Georgia Southern dropped to 1-1 on the year.
The win marked the highest-ranked team The Citadel has beaten since the advent of The Sports Network Division I-AA/FCS poll in 1990. It surpasses a 10-6 win over No. 7 Furman in 1991, although the Bulldogs did defeat top-ranked Marshall 20-3 in 1988. It was also the first time the Bulldogs have knocked off a top 10 team since edging East Tennessee State 23-20 in overtime in 1997.
Should The Citadel enter The Sports Network poll next week, it will be nationally ranked for the first time since remaining in the top 25 for the first seven weeks of the 2008 season.
The victory ended a string of heartbreaking defeats for The Citadel against Georgia Southern. The Bulldogs had lost five in a row to the Eagles, but four of those losses came by a touchdown or less including last year's 14-12 setback.
Georgia Southern never led until Ezayi Youyoute went in from a yard out to give the Eagles a 21-20 advantage with 3:13 left in the game.
The Bulldogs started their game-winning drive at their 35 after Luke Cherry's kickoff sailed out of bounds. Three running plays netted seven yards, putting The Citadel in a fourth down situation. Aaron Miller's pass intended for Domonic Jonessailed out of bounds, but Eagle cornerback Lavelle Westbrooks was flagged for pass interference to give the Bulldogs new life.
The Citadel was quickly in another fourth down situation, this time 15 yards away from the sticks at the 1:21 mark. The Bulldogs again came up with the conversion when Miller found Greg Adams on a 20-yard gain to the Eagle 28. An eight-yard pass to Adams and a one-yard run to Miller to put the ball in the middle of the field led to Warren's game winner.
Warren booted three field goals, the first time a Citadel kicker has accomplished that since Mike Adams did so against Western Carolina in 2007. Warren also connected from 42 yards out in the second quarter to give the Bulldogs a 17-14 lead at halftime and connected from 39 late in the third quarter to increase The Citadel cushion to 20-14.
Georgia Southern appeared poised to steal the win away from the Bulldogs when J.J. Wilcox raced 53 yards with the kickoff to set the Eagles up at The Citadel 43. Youyoute hit Jonathan Bryant on a 17-yard pass and then kept it himself on an 11-yard run that resulted in a fumble but Georgia Southern was able to recover at the 13.
Youyoute clocked the ball with 1.1 seconds left to give Nowicki time to be a hero, but the redshirt freshman kicker pushed his field goal attempt wide left to set off a wild celebration on the Bulldog sideline.
Ben Dupree paced The Citadel on the ground with 92 yards on 17 carries and went over the 1,000 mark for his career. The junior finished the night with 1,001 rushing yards and also threw a 26-yard touchdown pass to Jones for the first throwing touchdown of his career and the first by a Bulldog quarterback since Matt Thompson, now a wide receiver, had three against Chowan in the 2010 season opener.
The Eagles had two ball carries go over the 100-yard mark, including Dominique Swope with 129 and Youyoute with 101. Georgia Southern outgained The Citadel by over 100 yards in total offense (364-253) but had two turnovers and missed a pair of field goal attempts.
John Stevenson led Georgia Southern with 10 tackles, and reigning SoCon Defensive Player of the Year Brent Russell had a sack.
The Citadel struck first in the early stages of the first quarter when Davis Boyle forced a fumble by Swope, and Nick Willis recovered at the Georgia Southern 27. On fourth and two, Rickey Anderson went in from 19 yards out for his fourth rushing touchdown in two games to give the Bulldogs a 7-0 lead just 6:10 into the game.
Another Eagle fumble was recovered by Justin Oxendine at the Eagle 39, and Dupree found Jones on a 26-yard touchdown to boost the Bulldog advantage to14-0, its largest lead over Georgia Southern since holding a 21-7 advantage in what turned out to be a 24-21 victory at Johnson Hagood Stadium in 2006.
Georgia Southern cut its deficit in half on its next possession, driving 65 yards on an eight-yard run by Jerick McKinnon. After The Citadel went three and out, the Eagles churned out another 75 yards and tied the game when Swope scored on a two-yard run.
A 26-yard pass from Miller to VanDyke Jones led to Warren's first field goal of the game and a 17-14 Bulldog lead with 2:39 left before halftime. The Citadel went into the locker room ahead by three when Nowicki's 31-yard attempt was blocked by Domonic Jones as the first half ended.
The block by Jones was his first of the season after breaking the FCS record by rejecting five punts during the 2011 campaign.
The teams exchanged punts to start the second half until The Citadel drove 48 yards to set up a 39-yard field goal by Warrant to build its lead to six at the 2:22 mark of the third quarter. The Bulldogs looked to add to their lead early in the fourth quarter, but Dupree fumbled at the Georgia Southern 28, and Javon Mention recovered for the Eagles.
Two Eagle possessions later, McKinnon converted a fourth down with a seven-yard run to The Citadel 28, setting the stage for the Youyoute touchdown that gave the Eagles their short-lived lead.
The road doesn't get any easier for the Bulldogs as they hit the road for the first time this season at Appalachian State next Saturday for a 3:30 contest. The Citadel will be seeking to break another losing streak against a SoCon foe, having dropped its last eight to the Mountaineers. Appalachian State entered the week ranked sixth in the nation and defeated Montana 35-27 this evening.