Savannah State University took a break from Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference play Saturday night and dominated Charleston Southern en route to a 23-3 victory, the Tigers’ first against a Big South Conference opponent.
A crowd of 2,970 at T.A. Wright Stadium watched as SSU (1-4) also snapped a four-game losing streak. It was the fewest points allowed by SSU since the Tigers registered a 34-0 shutout against Allen, a NAIA team, in 2004.
Last season, Charleston Southern cruised to a 52-27 victory over SSU in Charleston, S.C. Last Saturday, Bethune-Cookman beat SSU, 35-20, in a MEAC game in which the Tigers gave up 455 yards of total offense, including 259 yards rushing.
“We had not been playing good run-defense but tonight we played phenomenal run defense,” said SSU third-year head coach Erik Raeburn, whose players celebrated by dumping a bucket of ice-water on him on the sideline with 1:23 left to play.
“I’ve never had a team that improved that much, defensively, from one week to the next,” Raeburn continued. “Our coaches, obviously, did a great job of putting the plan together, and then our guys went out and played hard and executed. I’m proud of our whole team. I thought we played better in all three phases (offense, defense and special teams) but, man, our run-defense was just light years different this week than the previous couple.”
Playing Charleston Southern in Savannah for the first time in 10 years, SSU improved to 1-7 in the series against the Buccaneers. Charleston Southern (1-3) finished with 33 yards rushing on 34 carries, and 123 yards of total offense.
Late in the first quarter, SSU free safety Donald Rutledge intercepted Charleston Southern quarterback London Johnson’s pass and returned it 75 yards to the Buccaneers’ 12-yard line. A penalty during the return moved the ball to CSU’s 6-yard line. Two plays later, SSU quarterback D’Vonn Gibbons ran for a 3-yard touchdown and Giovanni Lugo kicked the first of his three extra points to give SSU a 7-0 lead.
“I just told my defense, told my front seven, ‘Y’all take care of the run. I got y’all on the pass. We got y’all on the back end: me, (Vanquez) Bonner, John (Wilson), Isaiah (Bennett), we’re going to take care of the back end'” said Rutledge, a junior free safety who transferred to SSU after spending his freshman year at The Citadel in Charleston, S.C. “That was just a big play. I’m glad I could make it just to give the spark that got everybody going.”
Early in the second quarter, SSU’s defense produced a mammoth stop on fourth-and-goal when defensive lineman Brandon Carswell tackled Charleston Southern running back Ronnie Harris for a 3-yard loss.
“That was huge, defensively, to hold them out of the end zone,” Raeburn said.
SSU’s ensuing drive ended with Lugo’s 63-yard punt to Charleston Southern’s 15-yard line. Taz Lindsey returned the ball 10 yards to CSU’s 25-yard line. Three plays later, CSU running back Adam Allen fumbled and SSU defensive end Stefen Banks recovered at the Buccaneers’ 32-yard line.
“We played fast and we played together, and we came out with a win,” said Banks, who finished with 5.5 tackles, including two sacks and three tackles for a combined loss of 16 yards. “We weren’t surprised. We knew if we played as a team that this would be the outcome.”
Six plays later, SSU running back Jaylen McCloud ran up the middle for a 2-yard touchdown to make it 14-0 with 5:07 left before halftime.
Charleston Southern’s Tyler Tekac kicked a 35-yard field goal as time expired to cut it to 14-3 at halftime.
In the fourth quarter, SSU wide receiver James Kicklighter dove into the end zone and but his 6-yard touchdown with 8:02 to play was erased by a holding penalty. Four plays later, Lugo’s field goal attempt from the 27-yard line was blocked by CSU’s Brandon Rowland and J.D. Sosebee recovered for the Buccaneers.
Charleston Southern’s ensuing possession lasted only two plays because SSU’s Aaron Robinson registered a safety to make it 16-3 with 6:11 remaining.
The Tigers sealed their victory thanks to McCloud’s 5-yard touchdown run, his second score of the game, to make it 23-3 with 1:23 remaining.
“The tempo (in practice) was pretty high this week, and the scout team gave us a great look this week,” said McCloud, who finished with 50 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries. “This is the hardest we’ve practiced the whole season and this was the outcome. I’m proud of the guys. I’m proud of the scout team guys for giving us a good look. We came out here and knew what to expect, and we dominated.
“We were able to run the ball on (Charleston Southern),” McCloud continued. “The O-line was making holes the whole night. They played their butts off tonight. If we keep that up, we’re going to be unstoppable the rest of this season.”
SSU’s Gibbons led the Tigers in rushing with a game-high 68 yards, including a 3-yard touchdown, on 10 carries. He finished 1-for-5 passing for 11 yards. T.J. Bell finished 0-for-2 passing and threw an interception. Bell ran for 27 yards on seven carries. Kicklighter finished with 44 yards on six carries. Overall, SSU ran for 213 yards on 54 carries.
“We’ve been struggling to pass the football,” Raeburn said. “We’ve got to pass it better because we’re getting eight, nine guys in the box all the time. But we were able to hit some runs and get our quarterback going a little bit, which helped soften it up some. Our line did a good job, and the guys who carried the football ran hard. It saved us.”
SSU’s Robinson made a game-high seven tackles. The Tigers sacked Charleston Southern quarterbacks Johnson and Jack Chambers a combined five times, getting to Chambers three times. Robinson and Banks registered two sacks apiece, and William Campbell also sacked the quarterback.
“Our defense definitely showed out today,” Robinson said. “We practiced hard all week. We made some good stops. We’re looking forward to Morgan State next week.”
SSU will play Morgan State (1-4, 1-1) in a MEAC game at 6 p.m. Oct. 13 at T.A Wright Stadium. Morgan State lost, 21-18, to South Carolina State on Saturday in Baltimore, Md.
“Everything is starting to come together for our defense, for our offense,” Rutledge said. “We just need to ride this momentum. Week in and week out, we’ve got great fans. I love them. We owe this to them. We’re just going to keep riding this wave.”