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The Citadel embraces opportunity


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(Stats Perform) - The Citadel kicked a field goal as time expired on the first half, sending both teams to the locker room in a 10-10 tie. It was time for coach Brent Thompson and his assistants to make halftime adjustments.

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But on Nov. 17, 2018, Thompson must have taken a deep breath to grasp the magnitude of the moment. The Citadel were tied at halftime with No. 1-ranked Alabama, the defending national champion.

"The No. 1 thing that I thought we did was we approached it as a team and how we were going to shrink the game," Thompson said on Monday, thinking back to how his offense's triple option running game controlled game clock, the defense made stops and the special teams performed well in the first half.

The Citadel's upset bid unraveled early in the third quarter when Alabama scored two touchdowns in a 12-second span and began to pull away to a 50-17 victory.

The final score didn't diminish the respect gained by an FCS program that finished .500 in the Southern Conference and 5-6 overall.

"Certainly a memorable day for all of us," Thompson said.

On Saturday, The Citadel (0-1) will face another near-impossible assignment upstate at No. 1 Clemson (1-0). It will mark the 14th time since the Division I split in 1978 that an FCS program will face the top-ranked FBS team (https://tinyurl.com/yygfj3tl), and the Bulldogs will become the first to do it three times. They also fell to Florida State 37-12 in 2014 when Thompson was the offensive coordinator.

He was in his second season as head coach in 2017 when The Citadel lost at No. 2 Clemson, 61-3. Last year, he led the Bulldogs past Georgia Tech, 27-24 in overtime, for the season's only FCS win over a Power-5 Conference program.

His squad, led by quarterback Brandon Rainey at quarterback and linebacker Willie Eubanks III, will rely on its FBS experience for the Clemson matchup.

"Clemson is as advertised; we watched them against a good Wake Forest team," Thompson said. "We're going to do our best to be able to compete on their level for as long as we possibly can and do everything that we can to be able to make it a football game for them and enjoy ourselves while we're up there.

"As I told our players, we have an opportunity to play the No. 1 team in the nation, which is something that we do look forward to, something that we are pretty much used to since I arrived here in 2014. It's great that we have them in our state, being that our guys will be excited for that game."

Clemson beat Wake Forest, 37-13, while The Citadel opened its abbreviated fall season with a 27-6 loss at South Florida, where former Clemson assistant coach Jeff Scott made his head coaching debut.

The top-ranked Tigers, of course, are led by quarterback Trevor Lawrence, the expected No. 1 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, whom Thompson says makes the kind of plays that left him saying, "'Wow, I didn't know that could be done.'"

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, though, is impressed with his opponent as well.

"Got a very different challenge this week with The Citadel," he said. "They take a lot of pride in what they do. They can embarrass you quickly if you're not disciplined every single play because they keep attacking."

It won't be a typical fall Saturday in Death Valley because Clemson's 81,500-seat Memorial Stadium will be about 23 percent capacity at 19,000 due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Clemson is 34-0 all-time against the FCS, but with a less-raucous crowd, The Citadel could find it easier to gain an early comfort level. The Bulldogs are considered about a 44-point underdog.

"In the Alabama game, I never got the sense that the environment was too big for us. The Clemson game, we were a little bit in awe being that we have a number of guys from that area," Thompson said.

"The good thing is that on this roster, we probably have about at least half of our guys that played or were at the Alabama game, so they have a pretty good idea of what it takes to kind of settle into this. It will take usually about a series or two on the offensive side. If you can get off the field within the first two series on the defensive side and force them to punt, I would say that you've settled in. Usually right after the first kickoff on the special teams, you kind of get you a sense for what the speed is out there."

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