‘Started from the bottom, now we’re here’: VMI defeats The Citadel, clinches SoCon football championship
“We started from the bottom, now we’re here. We started at the bottom and now we’re at the top of the SoCon. I couldn’t be more proud of our football team,” Wachenheim said after the Keydets clinched their first Southern Conference title since 1977 with a 31-17 win over The Citadel on Saturday at Foster Stadium.
As the SoCon champ, the Keydets have earned an automatic bid to the NCAA FCS playoffs for the first time in program history.
VMI now awaits its FCS playoff opponent, which will be announced Sunday morning at 11:30 a.m. during the FCS Selection Sunday show to be aired on ESPNU and the Watch ESPN app.
It is still almost incomprehensible that we’re talking playoffs and VMI in the same sentence.
The last time the program even had a winning season was 1981, and other than a pair of .500 seasons in 2001 and 2002, the routine had become, hire a coach, give him a few years to try to get it turn around, rinse, repeat.
The VMI job had in the process become a graveyard for some pretty good coaches.
Bill Stewart, who would go on to a 28-12 record in three years at West Virginia, was 8-25 in three years at VMI in the mid-1990s.
Jim Reid, who had success at UMass and Richmond, leading each to a pair of FCS playoff berths, washed out after two years and a 3-19 mark in 2006 and 2007.
Then there was Sparky Woods, who was 38-19-2 at Appalachian State and 25-27-3 at South Carolina, ahead of stints as an assistant at places like Alabama, Virginia, Mississippi State.
Woods went 17-62 in seven seasons at VMI between 2008-2014.
He was Wachenheim’s predecessor.
Wach was Next Man Up.
Coach Wach’s first two teams showed promise, relatively, for VMI, going 2-9 in 2015 and 3-8 in 2016, before the wheels seemed to come off – the Keydets went 0-11 in 2017 and 1-10 in 2018, and the writing seemed to be on the wall.
Wachenheim’s contract came up after 2019; he had done his best, and after his five years, it was on to the next.
The 2019 team, though, had a breakthrough – finishing 5-7, the most wins for a VMI team since 2002, and going 4-4 in SoCon play, the most wins in conference since 1978.
Still, that’s 11-45 in five seasons.
But the 2019 season was enough for VMI to extend Wachenheim, showing faith in the progress – faith that would be tested when the SoCon pushed the 2020 fall season to spring 2021 due to COVID-19.
That 2021 spring season started with a massive upset – VMI defeated preseason SoCon favorite and 10th-ranked Furman, 14-13, in Lexington, sealing the win with a fumble recovery on the edge of the red zone in the final minute.
A huge comeback win at Samford, which involved a two-point conversion on the final play of OT, and then a come-from-behind win at Wofford, put the Keydets in position to do something special in front of the home crowd on Saturday, which carried with it the implications of the Military Classic of the South and the Silver Shako.
VMI, with a socially distanced sellout crowd at full throat, started fast on Saturday by scoring two touchdowns in the opening quarter.
The Keydet defense stopped The Citadel on downs on the Bulldogs’ opening drive at the visitors 41-yard line after fullback Nathan Storch was denied on a fourth-and-two rushing attempt.
VMI wasted little time and reached the end zone on six snaps after quarterback Seth Morgan dumped a screen pass to running back Korey Bridy, who dashed to the endzone for a 17-yard score at the 7:43 mark.
The VMI defense forced The Citadel on a three-and-out on the ensuing drive, and the Keydets punched the lead to 14-0 after moving 74 yards in 10 plays, capping the drive with a 3-yard slant pass from Morgan to Jakob Herres with 1:19 left in the opening frame.
The Bulldogs broke through on the scoreboard with a classic triple-option drive eating up 8:46 on the clock and capping a 15-play, 75-yard possession with a 1-yard rush from Jaylan Adams at the 8:46 mark of the second quarter that cut the VMI lead to 14-7.
The Keydets answered right back as Morgan started the drive with passes of 22 yards to Rashad Raymond and Max Brimigion for 21 yards to quickly push the ball into Bulldog territory. Two plays later, facing a 3rd and 12 at The Citadel 34, Brimigion took a reverse pitch and tossed a 16-yard pass to tight end Aiden Twombly to the 18-yard line.
Morgan then found Herres for a 15-yard gain to the Bulldog 3, and one snap later Morgan took an option keeping in for a score that pushed VMI’s lead to 21-7 with 4:14 left in the half.
The Bulldogs salvaged a score right before halftime on a Colby Kitner 32-yard field goal to cut the VMI lead to 21-10 at halftime.
The Citadel opened the second half with possession, but had to punt after moving to the VMI 44. But the Keydets fumbled it away on its first snap of the second half, and the Bulldogs seized the momentum quickly, scoring two plays later on an Adams’ 22-yard option keeper down the right sideline, and suddenly VMI’s lead was cut to one score, 21-17, at the 9:52 mark of the fourth quarter.
VMI was able to stretch its lead to 24-17 on the ensuing drive when kicker Jerry Rice nailed a 38-yard field for his 10th successful make of the year.
The Keydets missed opportunities to add to the lead after missing a field goal and being held on downs on their first two drives of the fourth quarter, but VMI’s defense was able to keep The Citadel in check, holding the Bulldogs to 31 yards total offense in the final period.
VMI hit the clinching score on a 50-yard catch and run from Morgan to Michael Jackson that sealed the scoring with 1:52 left in the game.
Morgan, who entered the game leading FCS in completion percentage at 77 percent, produced his third straight 300-yard passing game, completing 25 of 34 his passes for 328 yards and three TDs.
Herres collected 11 passes for 123 yards and a touchdown for third double-digit catch game out of the last four contests.
VMI’s dynamic linebacking duo of Stone Snyder (21 tackles, 2.5 TFL) and Connor Riddle (20 tackles) led the defensive charts, while defensive back A.J. Smith and defensive lineman Warren Dabney each contributed nine stops.
It’s still hard to fathom.
OK, maybe not to Wachenheim.
“This team has the most talent since I’ve been here,” Wachenheim said. “This team loves each other and that can’t be overstated. They truly love each other and they hold each other accountable. They stand strong and firm during the darkest times and they work with a great attitude. They’ve dodged all the curveballs that COVID has thrown us this past year, and they back each other up. That’s what has made this team special.”
A reporter asked Coach Wach postgame if he ever thought he’d coach a playoff team at VMI.
“When you look back at my opening press conference back in 2015, I said, ‘Look, you’ve got to be patient. This is going to be taking some time,’” Wachenheim said. “We have to recruit players. At VMI, we don’t get grad transfers or junior college transfers. We have to recruit freshmen, and there’s a learning curve on figuring out the kids who are going to make it here.
“I always thought we could do it, and I believed it. Tom Clark, the only assistant who has been with me for six years, I knew he believed it, too. After we went 0-11, there were times I prayed to my Lord and asked, ‘Lord, why did you bring me here? Did you bring me here to fail?’ I have to give God all the glory, and he renewed my strength. He helped me to move forward and to make the right decisions, and he gave us some players that could make plays.”
Story by Chris Graham