(STATS) – As far as October road trips go, you could do a lot worse than the scenic two-hour jaunt from Conway, South Carolina, to North Charleston, chugging through the Francis Marion National Forest with the Atlantic Ocean just off to the west.
It’s safe to say Coastal Carolina won’t be hopping on a bus down US-17 just for some sightseeing.
The circumstances were strangely similar when the Chanticleers visited Charleston Southern two years ago, and even scoring some revenge last season wasn’t enough to make them forget what happened at Buccaneer Field heading into another Big South showdown Saturday night.
Coastal Carolina was the top-ranked team in the nation going into that Nov. 9, 2013, meeting with the No. 16 Buccaneers, but a 31-26 loss in which it possessed the ball for less than 20 minutes knocked it off that perch.
That was the first time two nationally ranked Big South teams met. Saturday marks the second.
“The guys who were on the team two years ago remember what happened the last time we were down there,” senior defensive end Calvin Hollenhorst said. “That’s still going to be fresh on our minds. We definitely don’t want to repeat what happened the last time we were in Charleston.”
That defeat didn’t keep the Chanticleers out of the FCS playoffs, but it did land them on the same side of the bracket as North Dakota State – the equivalent of ending up in the same conference as LeBron James. The Bison have bounced Coastal Carolina from the playoffs in each of the last two seasons.
The Chanticleers (7-0, 2-0) are No. 1 in the coaches’ poll and No. 2 in the STATS FCS Top 25 with the playoffs again on the horizon, but they’re hardly considered a juggernaut the way four-time reigning champion NDSU has been.
They’re a three-point underdog in this one after needing Ryan Granger’s 30-yard field goal as time expired to escape Monmouth 23-20 last Saturday, which came despite allowing the 3-5 Hawks to rack up 475 yards of offense.
Coastal won its first 11 games last season – including a 43-22 victory over Charleston Southern – by an average of more than three touchdowns. It started 9-0 in 2013 with a nearly identical margin. This season, four of its wins have been one-possession games.
“We understand we haven’t been playing up to our potential,” running back De’Angelo Henderson said. “We’ve been playing like an average football team. With the talented guys we have on both side of the ball, we know that we’re above average.
“The way we’ve been playing the last few weeks is not acceptable.”
Henderson is as elite as they come, with his second-quarter score against Monmouth giving him a touchdown in an FCS-record 21 consecutive games.
But the defense he’ll be facing Saturday has every right to think it can swallow him up. Charleston Southern (6-1, 3-0) is giving up 218.1 yards per game, the fewest in the FCS by nearly 50. The Buccaneers are the first Big South team to hold three consecutive teams under 200 yards, and they actually haven’t allowed more than 142 in conference play.
“I would like to think that we all thought we could be this good defensively,” said senior linebacker Aaron Brown, who leads the Bucs with 41 tackles. “Everyone’s just doing their jobs and getting in the right places. We’re swarming to the ball and giving 100 percent effort every play. That’s where the success is really coming from.”
Henderson may have to do even more heavy lifting against the Buccaneers with Coastal’s receiving corps – Bruce Mapp, Tyrell Blanks and John Israel – banged up. Blanks appears the least likely to play among a trio that’s combined for 72 receptions, which could give sophomore Chris Jones and junior return man Devin Brown a chance to step up.
Israel had three catches for 174 yards and two TDs in last season’s win over the Bucs, while Henderson – a native of nearby Summerville – has totaled 20 carries for 196 yards and four scores in his two games in this series.
Charleston seems content to give up the occasional big play as long as it can control the tempo. The Bucs have run 150 plays to the Chanticleers’ 113 in the last two meetings, possessing the ball for more than 76 minutes with its option attack. They head into this contest ranked eighth in the FCS in time of possession at 33:37 per game.
That’s a battle they’ll likely have to win again Saturday, but a challenge Coastal insists it’s ready to handle even with just a few days’ worth of practice heading in.
Chanticleers coach Joe Moglia knew his team would have limited time to prepare for the option during game week, so he got his team some work when he could against a scheme it rarely sees. Moglia said Coastal spent up to 40 minutes at seven practices this spring covering the option, revisiting it in August, every Sunday night since then and during at least half of their Oct. 11 bye week.
“If you go into that week and that’s the first time you’re preparing for (the option), you’re not going to be prepared.” Moglia said. “It doesn’t mean you can’t beat somebody, but you’re not going to be prepared.
“We will still be at a relative disadvantage, but we’ve probably got three to four weeks of work more than what a typical team would have just the week of the game.”
Adding to Moglia’s workload is the uncertainty of which quarterback they’ll see more. Austin Brown has taken the majority of the snaps this season, but Kyle Copeland is the more capable passer and could play if he’s recovered from a concussion.
Brown looked awfully good through the air last Saturday in a 34-0 win at Gardner-Webb, though, throwing for a season-high 202 yards and three touchdowns.
“He’s improving each week and when he plays this type of game, I think we’re pretty dangerous,” coach Jamey Chadwell said. “We know we’re going to need him to make some plays because it’s going to be difficult to shut down Coastal offensively.”
Two Big South teams made it to the playoffs last season for the first time in conference history, and it’s very possible both the Chanticleers and Buccaneers get there a month from now.
But Saturday’s winner will have an inside track toward a bye, not to mention bragging rights in the final meeting between these intrastate rivals before Coastal heads to the Sun Belt Conference next season.
Are those stakes big enough for what’s essentially a Big South championship game that will conclude before most trick-or-treaters have had time to sift through their hauls?
“If our guys don’t understand (what’s on the line), it’s like they’re living in a cave somewhere in the mountains,” Moglia said. “We know this is the biggest game we’ve played so far this season, and we know that this is probably the best team on our schedule.”
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