Don’t tell the folks at Charleston Southern that they can’t win this Saturday.
Sure, everyone knows about the pressure the Buccaneers will face in the Fargodome, starting off the season against the defending five-time national champions. Everyone knows North Dakota state is good – legendary good.
They know the eyes of the entire national college football world will be squarely on them, on ESPN.
It’s frankly a moment in the sun that Charleston Southern couldn’t have possibly dreamed about going into last season.
But don’t tell them they have no chance.
After all, the Buccaneers know a thing or two about having chips on their shoulder.
Going into last season, you’d have been forgiven if Charleston Southern wasn’t atop your list of FCS Top 25 programs.
Picked to finish 3rd in the Big South, the Buccaneers’ chances for glory seems to be dwarfed by the two enormous programs in their way, Liberty, who is one of the richest programs in the FCS and has big FBS ambitions, and Coastal Carolina, who recently announced they are joining the FBS as a new member of the Sun Belt.
But Charleston Southern’s whole worldview was based on that chip on their shoulders – so much so, according to Kevin O’Rourke, Voice of the Bucs, that they had practice shirts printed up with that on them.
“They’ve taken a lot of pride in past years and taking the underdog role and the feeling that people don’t respect them,” he told me. “I think they recognize they’re getting respect now, but they also want to validate that they’re a Top Ten team.”
The story of the Bucs last season was one of the more heartwarming of the entire subdivision.
Riding Jamie Chatwell’s triple-option offense and a stifling defense, Charleston Southern, on their home field that can accommodate at most an overflow crowd of about 8,000, rode to a 9-2 record, defeating every FCS team they faced during the regular season.
They started out the season unranked and seemingly a step behind two Top 25 programs in Liberty and Coastal Carolina. When the Chanticleers worked their way up to being the No. 1 team in the nation, the chances of the Bucs winning the Big South seemed even more remote.
But Chatwell’s Bucs were simply winning football games in a refreshingly retro way.
Linebacker Solomon Brown and the rest of the Buccaneer “Blue Swarm” defense terrorized their FCS opponents, allowing a grand total of 266 yards per game, good for No. 2 in the country.
And the triple-option offense, with the trio of running backs Mike Holloway, Darius Hammond and Ben Robinson, ground out yardage and created enough big plays to keep Charleston Southern’s train rolling through the Big South.
With a chip on their shoulders, one of the sweetest victories of all for the Bucs was the final trip of No. 1 Coastal Carolina to a raucous Buccaneer field in what would be the Chanticleers’ final season in the Big South
Most of the so-called experts had the well-heeled Coastal Carolina as prohibitive favorites to beat the Buccaneers. But after Bucs defensive back Raymere Thomas batted away quarterback Alex Ross’ pass in the end zone, Jamey Chatwell’s team’s ended up on top 33-25 when the clock read zero.
“We’re where we want to be – and we’re also state champions, too,” Chatwell said after the game.
That’s because earlier in the season, Charleston Southern also knocked off The Citadel, eventual co-champions of the SoCon, 33-20.
That first game vs. The Citadel featured something that heated up the in-state rivalry between the two schools: the broom.
Chadwell and the Bucs felt disrespected by The Citadel by refusing to schedule a home-and-home series with them. After the Bucs came into Johnson Hagood stadium and beat the Bulldogs for the third straight meeting – the last game of their contract – the team brought Chadwell the broom, and chanted, “Sweep! Sweep! Sweep!”
“We feel disrespected by them,” Chadwell said adterwards. “I’m not saying their coach, or maybe their team, but there are a lot of people that maybe look down on us for maybe what we stand for because of our facilities. If we’re going to play them, it’s going to be home-and-home. We win more games here than they do, so it’s like a home game for us.”
It was a dream season for the Bucs, whose only regular-season losses came against FBS schools on the road at Troy (44-16) and, oh, the FBS national champions, Alabama (56-6).
Rewarded with their first-ever playoff appearance the Bucs ended up in a rematch against The Citadel.
In a beautiful twist of fate, Chatwell ended up with the home game against The Citadel he wanted – thanks to the Bucs earning a seed through their fantastic play during the regular season.
True to form, this Paleo matchup of triple-option offenses was a defensive battle, ending in a 14-6 win. The Bucs forced six turnovers, and Brown ended with 15 tackles and 1 1/2 tackles for loss, all the while holding The Citadel’s own triple-option attack under four yards per carry.
“We’ll take the win,” Chadwell said after the playoff game. “I tell you what; it was an interesting ball game, to say the least. The way that game went, it could have went the other way, but our guys kept believing and kept fighting. They’ve got a good football team. Our defense made enough plays for us to get some turnovers, and did what they’ve done all year.”
“I think that’s the sign of a good team, really a great team, when you don’t play well, you find a way to win,” Chadwell continued. “There was never a doubt on that sideline that we weren’t gonna find a way to win the game. How you respond to adversity is really what type of character you have, and our team responded.”
While they would eventually fall to the No. 1 team entering the playoffs, Jacksonville State, by the end of the season Charleston Southern was counted as one of the nation’s top FCS teams.
The Bucs proved one thing beyond a shadow of a doubt – they earned the respect of FCS Nation the hard way, and no matter what happens this weekend against North Dakota State, the Bison will have to knock a chip off of the Bucs’ shoulders.
GAME PREVIEW: Charleston Southern at North Dakota State
Head coach Jamey Chadwell didn’t mince words with me when I asked him about preparing for the Fargodome.
“We have worked hard to try and simulate the noise in practice the best we could,” he said. “We hope what we have done will help but a simulation is never the real thing so that will be a challenge.”
Coupled with the regular questions going into any season home opener, Chadwell said it wasn’t going to be easy.
“The difficulty of playing a game like this first is the unknown,” he said. “Have they changed anything, who is their new personnel, and then add in the crowd noise and it’s a tough task to prepare for.”
Today, Charleston Southern will be doing a walk-through at their place “to get used to the lighting at their place,” he told me, something he’s never had to do before.
Playing in the Fargodome is a daunting task for any team, but it’s not made any easier with the newness of everything.
I think the Buccaneers won’t be intimidated by the setting, the loudness, and the newness of being the visitor in the Fargodome. They will play better than a lot of people expect. But in the end, it will come up just short.
North Dakota State 20, Charleston Southern 14