There were 14 minutes and 14 seconds left in the game when Georgia Tech linebacker Quez Jackson grabbed Brandon Rainey’s facemask.
The Citadel quarterback’s head and neck twisted as Jackson pulled on the facemask, but the damage was done further below, to Rainey’s left knee. Jackson was called for a personal foul penalty, Rainey was helped off the field and backup quarterback Brian Murdaugh came on to replace him.
The Bulldogs went on to win that Sept. 14 game, a 27-24 overtime upset of Georgia Tech for The Citadel’s first victory over a current member of the ACC. But when The Citadel’s 2019 season is over, that facemask grab might be seen as turning point in the Bulldogs’ fortunes.
The 2-3 Bulldogs, who lost 61-55 in four overtimes in their Southern Conference opener at Samford last week, now face the prospect of playing the final seven games of the season with a starting quarterback operating at something less than full effectiveness.
“I’m not sure he’ll be 100 percent this season,” Citadel coach Brent Thompson said of Rainey after the Samford loss.
Citadel coach Brent Thompson made it clear early on Saturday that he was not afraid to gamble on fourth down.
Murdaugh guided The Citadel through a 22-13 win over Charleston Southern the week following Georgia Tech, and Rainey returned to the lineup on Saturday against Samford. He wore a brace on his left knee and was obviously at less than 100 percent, and it showed.
With Rainey’s mobility limited, The Citadel’s triple option was reduced to a double option for the most part. Rainey and three fullbacks combined for 79 of the Bulldogs’ 95 rushing attempts, averaging just 2.4 yards per carry against Samford’s beefy defensive front.
Rainey, who ran for 217 yards and a touchdown in last year’s 42-27 win over Samford, was limited to 65 yards on 29 attempts Saturday, including four sacks for 24 yards in losses. The QB was able to get the ball out to the slotbacks for only 16 of the 95 carries.
“It was that kind of game plan,” Thompson said during his Monday press conference. “If we wanted to have that many snaps on offense (102), you have to maintain possession of the ball. You don’t want to put the ball at risk that much, so you are not reading and distributing the ball as much as you normally would. You just want to keep them honest on the perimeter, and I thought we did that.
“If you want 41 minutes of possession time (The Citadel had 42:09), you have to establish the fullback and the quarterback, and then find a way to get to the perimeter. Samford runs very well and can really walk you down on the perimeter, and we saw some of that.”
Despite the limited rushing attack and some failed fourth-down calls, The Citadel still managed to score 38 points in regulation and owned a 14-point lead with eight minutes to play. Rainey gamely hit 6 of 7 passes for 196 yards and two touchdowns, on strikes of 84 and 17 yards to Raleigh Webb.
“We had the opportunity to win the game in regulation,” Thompson said. “Being up by 14 points in the fourth quarter and giving up two quick ones, that hurts. We had the opportunity to kill the clock on offense, and the opportunity to get then on the ground a couple of more times and not give up two really big plays on those final two drives.”
The Citadel’s Joshua Roides is a third-team kicker who stands 5-foot-7 and weighs 166 pounds, sports a grin with a missing front tooth and likes to wear black-rimmed nerd glasses.
Thompson said he did not consider pulling Rainey at any point against Samford, and said the QB was “moving around better than ever” during Sunday’s workout.
“As it warmed up and got going in the game, I don’t think he even noticed (the knee),” Thompson said. “Was he 100 percent? Well, no, but nobody on that football field is 100 percent at this time of the year.”
With five straight SoCon games looming — starting this week against rival VMI — before a Nov. 9 open date, the Bulldogs might have to learn to win with a quarterback at something less than 100 percent, thanks to that facemask grab at Georgia Tech.
Punter Matthew Campbell did not play against Samford, and fullback Clay Harris suffered a shoulder injury during the game.
“Matt is probably day-to-day right now,” Thompson said. “It was a lower-body strain that he took in practice. He just couldn’t do anything, so he’ll be day-to-day this week. Clay, it’s kind of a recurring thing right now, so I think if we can manage it and get some of that pain out of it, time will help him. I don’t expect him not to be the starter this week.”
With Campbell out, backup punter Gage Russell averaged 52 yards on three kicks against Samford.
Citadel safety Sean-Thomas Faulkner was ejected from the Samford game after a targeting call and will sit out the first half against VMI, Thompson said.
“The rule has changed there, so once it was upheld in replay there is no appeal of the targeting call,” Thompson said.
Reach Jeff Hartsell at 843-937-5596. Follow on Twitter @Jeff_fromthePC