Military school football is unique.
The campus life is not like that of most other campuses. The type of student who chooses to engage in this brand of higher education tends to be of a different breed, a commendable breed.
When it comes to football, when a military college or academy meet on the gridiron, they tend to mirror each other and many times the games are tight … even when one school might be flying high and the other struggling that year.
That might explain why FCS/I-AA The Citadel has found success against Army and Navy in the past. The programs tend to favor a disciplined style of play, sometimes without the luxury of the 6-foot-6, 330-pound tackle or the skill player who runs a 4.3-second time in the 40-yard dash. They aim to control the clock, limit mistakes and penalties, and to suffocate — not overpower — opponents.
That’s why this weekend’s matchup of The Citadel at Army is one to keep an eye on. Yes, Army has played pretty well in recent years, winning 37 games from 2016 to now. The Black Knights of the Hudson are just two seasons removed from winning 11 games and scoring 70 points in a bowl game. But even considering all of that, when military-based schools do battle, it can be unpredictable at times.
For The Citadel, it hasn’t been an easy start to this abbreviated, pandemic-infected season. First it clawed its way through a tough game in Tampa against South Florida before falling – undoubtedly the Bulldogs’ best effort of the year. Then they traveled to the No. 1 team in all the land at Clemson, before falling at home to FCS foe Eastern Kentucky.
An obvious bright spot for The Citadel has been the play of senior leader and linebacker Willie Eubanks III, a HERO Sports Preseason All-American who is one of the nation’s Division I leaders in tackles and tackles for loss.
“Willie is a good player … he definitely could be an FBS linebacker,” said junior teammate Marquise Blount, who is also having a good fall. “The way he treats me is like a brother, a little brother I guess. He’ll have a great opportunity at the next level whatever does … His game at South Florida (15 tackles, 3 TFLs), he put his name out there more.
“He let people know who he is, that he’s not only a tackling machine against FCS teams, but FBS too.”
In high school, The Citadel head coach Brent Thompson recalls a young running back who turned heads. But the Bulldogs’ coaching staff felt they were looking at a future stud linebacker in Eubanks. The rest is history, as the senior has brought home Southern Conference and FCS accolades.
“Willie was not one to just jump in the boat with us, it took a long time to get his commitment,” Thompson told HERO Sports this week. “But I’m pretty sure he had some military in his background and he had an understanding of what this will be all about … When I had him in my office, I tried to scare him away like we do with everyone, and if they come back, you know you can work with them … and he did.”
If The Citadel were to travel up the Hudson River of New York and stun Army this weekend, Eubanks (35 tackles, 5 TFLs in three games) would undoubtedly be a big reason for it.
Buying in to the program is something that must happen at a place like The Citadel or Army – even more so than a normal college football program. But once that core … or should I say Corps … is formed, it can be something very special on the gridiron.
This weekend we get to see two teams face off that weren’t supposed to play each other this year, but Thompson and The Citadel’s brass jumped on the opportunity when it presented itself, with Thompson hailing from New York himself.
You never know what can happen. Army isn’t going to “out trick” The Citadel with its option offense under Jeff Monken, because frankly … The Bulldogs are similar. Also in the past five years … Georgia Tech and South Carolina have found out what The Citadel can do (beat you) when you don’t give El Cid your undivided attention, and Thompson’s Bulldogs had Nick Saban throwing fits on the sideline in 2018 when the Bulldogs were tied with Alabama at halftime. It took a guy named Tua to fix it for the Crimson Tide.
“Just being able to play this fall, there aren’t many teams that have gotten the opportunity to play at all, especially in the FCS,” Eubanks told HERO Sports. “Just being out there with all of the other seniors, enjoying the time we get to play together … Getting to go up to West Point is a once in a lifetime experience, like with everything that has happened in 2020. We were granted three FBS opponents we wouldn’t have played … I don’t know too many guys who’ve played in Tampa Bay’s stadium (Raymond James), then went to the No. 1 team in the country (Clemson) and then traveled up to West Point.
“For an FCS team to be able to do this, God has granted us with an opportunity.”