Cardiac Keydets look for another spring first at Wofford Saturday

VMI goes in search of its first win over Wofford since 2002 when it forged one of the biggest upsets in SoCon history, with a 27-16 win over No. 18 Wofford in Lexington, VA. (photo courtesy of VMI athletics)

VMI (4-0, 4-0 SoCon) at Wofford (1-2, 1-2 SoCon), Gibbs Stadium/1 p.m.

VMI’s success against each Southern Conference foe has been fleeting, and one of the program’s which the Keydets have had the least success against over the years has been Wofford. The three-time defending Southern Conference gridiron champions will host the unbeaten and 14th-ranked VMI Keydets on Saturday afternoon at Gibbs Stadium. A win Saturday would put an end to an eight-game losing streak to the Terriers, as well as lead to VMI’s first 5-0 start to a season since 1960!

Sixth-year head coach Scott Wachenheim (15-45) is doing something remarkable in Lexington, and it goes to show what patience in the right coach can do. Wachenheim is in the process of transforming the football program, and has already taken the Keydet football program to some unprecedented feats in an unprecedented spring football season in the 100-year old Southern Conference.

Wachenheim, who is a 1984 graduate of the Air Force Academy, has done something the likes of Cal McCombs, Ted Cain, Sparky Woods, Jim Shuck, Bill Stewart Jim Reid, and Donny White could not accomplish, which is a establish a consistent winner in the Shenandoah Valley region of the Commonwealth of Virginia. In fact, you would have to go back to the days of John McKenna (1953-65) and Bob Thalman (1971-84) to find some of the accomplishments which the Keydets have achieved this season.

Let that sink in.VMI’s current five-game winning streak (dates back to last season’s regular-season finale win over Chattanooga) is its longest since 1976-77, when the Keydets won their final four games to close the ’76 campaign and its season opener in ’77.

Rarely if ever have the Keydets come into this clash with the better record, and it will mark the first time in the history of the series that the Keydets have entered a football clash with the Terriers as the ranked team. In 2002, the Keydets, who were led quarterback Joey Gibson and running back Sean Mizzer, posted one of the biggest upset wins in the history of the Southern Conference, completing what was a 27-16 win over the No. 18 Wofford Terriers.

Since that meeting in 2002, seven-straight meetings have been decided by double digits, with the Keydets having come no closer than 17 points, which came in a 17-0 loss at Gibbs Stadium in 2016. In fact, you have to go all the way back to the 2004 clash, which saw two two meet as non-conference foes, with the Keydets having dropped a narrow 19-18 contest in Lexington, VA. An eight-win Wofford team did not make the playoffs once again, and a narrow 1-point win over the Keydets and a win over a Division II were costly in Wofford’s playoff hopes in that particular season.

That loss, which came on Oct. 12, 2002, which also happened to be the date of the famous “Go For Two” game between Furman and Appalachian State, would all lead to a strange selection Sunday at the end of the season, which saw a ranked and 9-3 Wofford team left out of the playoffs. Coming into the final Saturday of the season, the Terriers had a chance to win the first-ever championship for the Terrier football program. A 23-21 loss to Furman on a rainy Saturday saw the Terriers go from potential first-time SoCon champions to playoff snub. The committee cited the loss to VMI for one of the reasons the Terriers were left out of the 2002 postseason.

It would prove to be the turning point in the history of the Wofford football program, who would go on to finish 8-0 in the league a year later and advanced all the way to the Division I-AA semifinals before losing to eventual national champions Delaware, 24-9.

The Terriers have won a total of seven SoCon crowns since that fateful loss to the Keydets in Lexington back in 2002. In fact, the Terriers have won three-straight SoCon titles and have made five-straight FCS playoff appearances, however, both of those streaks look to be in serious jeopardy heading down the stretch of the SoCon’s first-ever spring football season.

The Keydets, meanwhile, have seemingly had every answer this spring, and that includes a pair of thrilling one-point wins this spring over No. 10 Furman (14-13) and last week over Samford (38-37) in dramatic fashion on the road. That has put the Keydets in position to win a SoCon football crown for the first time since 1981. VMI will bring its first national ranking to Wofford to face the Terriers on Saturday.

All told, it will mark the 24th all-time meeting between VMI and Wofford in a series which got its start in 1924. Wofford holds the narrow 13-10 win in the all-time series, with most of VMI’s victories coming while the Terriers were a lower division foe. In fact, the Keydets claimed the first nine meetings in the series.

However, Wofford has won 13 of the past 14 clashes between the two, including a 51-36 win in a weather-delayed contest back in 2019 in Lexington. VMI has never won a game in Spartanburg entering Saturday’s clash, having dropped its first seven games it has played at Gibbs Stadium.

The Keydets roll into Saturday’s contest in Spartanburg continuing to roll offensively, led by Keydet All-America quarterback Reece Udinski (124-of-172 passing, 1,087 yds, 7 TDs, 2 INTs).

With his performance last Saturday, Udinski became VMI’s all-time leading passer in last Saturday’s dramatic win at Samford, as he now has 7.877 yards in his three years as the Keydets quarterback, surpassing Al Cobb (2014-16) as the program’s all-time leading passer. Udinski now holds the program career marks for passing yards, passing touchdowns, completions, attempts, and touchdown responsibilities.

Udinski is surrounded by offensive talent, which includes running back Kory Bridy (77 rush att, 313 yds, 4 TDs/11 rec, 42 yds, 3.8 YPR), as well as talented wideouts Jakob Heres (33 catches, 376 yds, 3 TDs, 11.4 YPR).

Those two weapons in the passing game alone are troublesome, however, when you add Max Brimigion (20 rec, 159 yds, 11.4 YPR) and Michael Jackson (20 rec, 160 yds, 2 TDs, 8.0 YPR) in there as third and fourth options at wide receiver, it gives the Keydets at least four viable options in the passing game that can be threats in a variety of different areas of the VMI passing attack, including as deep threats.

The Keydets enter Saturday’s clash in the Hub City ranking third in the SoCon in scoring offense (24.0 PPG), second in total offense (429.0 YPG), and second in passing offense (289.2 YPG). The Keydets also rank as the best red zone offense (8-of-10/7 TDs/1 FG), and are tied for fifth in the league in sacks allowed (12 sacks allowed in 5 gms).

Wofford has simply been the gold standard of Southern Conference football over the past decade, but have gotten off to a bit of a slow start, and come in having lost two-straight, suffering setbacks at both Chattanooga (L, 13-24) and at Samford (L, 31-37). The Terriers had to postpone a game earlier this spring against East Tennessee State as a result of not being able to meet the requirements for defensive lineman available.

Wofford brings an offense into the clash, which ranks 11th nationally in rushing offense (217.0 YPG), 34th in total offense (364.3 YPG) and 39th in scoring offense (25.0 PPG).

The Terriers counter the Keydet offense with a less mature offense and one that returned just three starters coming into the spring, however, its an offense that has a lot of emerging young stars, both in the ground game, as well as in the passing game.

A re-tooled offensive line is trying to adjust to losing the likes of Josh Burger and Blake Jeresaty off that talented, physical 2019 offensive front. It was arguably one of the most talented offensive line’s in the tradition-rich history of Wofford football.

Expected to lead the Terrier offense under center once again on Saturday will be Jimmy Weirick (26-of-44 passing, 341 yds, 1 TD, 2 INTs), however, though Weirick is listed as the started, it is also possible that Appalachian State transfer Peyton Derrick (8-of-14 passing, 101 yds, 1 TD, 1 INT/52 rush yds, 1 TD) might see his first-career start as a Terrier Saturday.

Wofford offensive coordinator Wade Lang continues to try and diversify the Terrier offense more as the spring progresses, introducing a healthy balance of run-pass into the Terrier offense in hopes of making Wofford a less predictable offense when they arrive in the postseason again.

In fact, it could be argued that Lang’s offenses–by no fault of his own but more because the Terriers have been so successful running the ball–has been more predictable in the postseason because they have had that success over the course of the season rushing the football. But as we all know the FCS playoffs are a different animal all together.

In fact, I’d argue you’d have to go back to the 2007 to find a real deviation in Wofford’s offense, mixing in the run and pass in more of a spread-bone offense than the tradition wing-bone, which foes had been used to seeing. It was a stroke of brilliance by Lang, and kept opposing defenses off balance throughout that campaign, which saw the Terriers knock off eventual national title winner Appalachian State to gain a share of the SoCon regular-season title.

With personnel that featured quarterbacks Josh Collier and Ben Widmyer (son of Couer D’Alene, Idaho Mayor Steve Widmyer), as well as running back Kevious Johnson and wideout Andy Strickland, it not only kept SoCon foes off-balance, but was also less predictable for foes in the postseason, as an unbeaten Montana found out in the opening round of the playoffs, with the Terriers taking one of their most memorable wins (W, 23-22) in school history back from Missoula and Washington-Grizzly Stadium in freezing temperatures on Thanksgiving weekend of ’07.

That was back during a hey-day of Southern Conference football, and a period in which the league’s offensive explosion was showcased throughout the nation. The SoCon at that time had innovative offenses throughout the league, with the spread-option offense in some form become a trendy fashion among school’s like The Citadel, App State and even Georgia Southern, which at the time was under first-year head coach Chris Hatcher, and started to implement elements of the spread option in its continued transition from flexbone-to-Hatch Attack.

That being said, these times are different in SoCon football, as it is a much less strong league, and Lang has had to figure out how to navigate the regular-season and then meet tougher foes in the postseason, as well as defenses more athletically adept to stopping the Terrier offense in its proverbial tracks.

That being said, it’s a Wofford offense that features as many athletes as it ever has, with the likes of Irvin Mulligan (30 rush att, 199 yds, 1 TD, 6.6 YPC) and Ryan Lovelace (37 rush att, 163 yds, 2 TDs, 4.4 YPC) as the primary ground threats, while TJ Luther (6 rec, 108 yds, 1 TD, 18.0 YPR), KeiAndre Sanders (7 rec, 97 yds, 13.9 YPR) and D’Mauriae VanCleave (5 rec, 88 yds, 17.6 YPR) continue to be the big-play threats in the passing game for the Terriers.

While the offense on both sides will offer big play threats at multiple positions, this game will ultimately be decided on the defensive side of the football.

The defense has been without question the defensive side of the football this season for the Keydets. In 2019, a 5-7 season was highlighted by the fact that the Keydets had one of the best offenses in the nation in multiple aspects, and led by a record-setting signal-caller, with the backdrop of a defense that was one of the nation’s worst.

VMI finished the 2019 campaign ranking among the worst of all of FCS football, as the Keydets finished the season ranking 120th in total defense (494.8 YPG). Currently the Keydets rank 47th nationally in total defense (354.2 YPGA), 15th against the run (93.0 YPG), 77th in pass defense (261.2 YPG) and 23rd in scoring defense (17.8 PPG).

Last season, I gave credit to Brian Sheppard as the best coordinator in the SoCon after taking over Wachheim’s offense and putting it into overdrive after coming over from Northern Arizona. The improvement was there for all to see.

This season, that same award has to go to sixth-year defensive coordinator Tom Clark, who has patiently built this Keydet defense from traditionally a bottom third defense nationally annually some six years ago, to a legitimate top 50 unit this season, including a top 15 unit against the run!

It’s an even more remarkable turnaround than the offense saw under Sheppard in 2019. It’s why VMI finds itself in the middle of a memorable, historic campaign in the first-ever SoCon spring football season.

Leading the defensive unit for the Keydets is an outstanding front seven, which has helped the Keydets rank third nationally in sacks per game (4.50 SPG). Highlighting the defensive line is defensive end Warren Dabney (6 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1.0 sack, 2 QBHs, 1 PBU), who is having an All-SoCon season, while linebacker’s Stone Snyder (34 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 4.0 sacks, 1 QBH) and Connor Riddle (39 tackles, 8.5 TFL, 4.0 sacks, 2 PBUs, 1 INT, 1 QBH) are also having all-league season’s as a part of a defense that the Department of Defense would be proud of.

While VMI’s defense has improved exponentially, one of the major reasons that Wofford has found itself as a perennial power in the SoCon over the past 10-15 years has been a stout defensive unit year-in and year-out. That has been even more magnified under Josh Conklin, who has one of the better defensive minds in all of FCS football.

The Terrier defense returned six starters from an outstanding unit last fall, and it was the reason many felt that the Terriers would once again challenge for a SoCon title in the spring, despite the fact the offense had so much to replace.

Leading the defense up front is one of the best defensive linemen in all of FCS football, in Michael Mason (17 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 1.0 sack, 1 FF).

One of the player’s that will be busy Saturday with the prolific passing attack that VMI brings to the Hub City is strong safety Tahir Annoor (19 tackles, 1 PBU).

Apparently, good football genes run in the Annoor family, as his brother, Aaquil Annoor was an All-SoCon defensive back at Wofford’s I-85 rival Furman (2015-18). Annoor highlights a Wofford secondary that needs to have its “A” game Saturday if the Terriers hope to pull the upset.

Final Score Prediction: VMI 31, Wofford 28

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