Southern Conference Football 2014: Recap Part 1 of 2

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Nov 22, 2014; Tuscaloosa, AL, USA; Western Carolina Catamounts quarterback Troy Mitchell (10) drops back to pass against the Alabama Crimson Tide at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

While Chattanooga was busy putting together another title run, the 2014 season would mark Western Carolina’s rise back towards the top of the Southern Conference. When Mark Speir took over three years ago, the Catamount football program was in shambles. However, Speir’s Catamounts served notice to the rest of the SoCon that they better respect what Speir and the Cats are busy doing in Cullowhee.

The Catamounts would post their best season since 2001, posting a 7-5 overall record and with a 5-2 Southern Conference mark, tying for second in the Southern Conference standings.

The five league wins by the Purple and Gold matches the most conference wins in program history, tying the 2001 squad, which went 5-3 in league play. The Catamounts have won five games in league play nine times since joining the SoCon in 1977.

The second-place finish in the league standings marked the best finish since 1986, and marked just the fourth time in its membership in the SoCon that the Catamounts have finished second in the Southern Conference.

It was a dream start to Southern Conference play for the Catamounts, who started the 2014 campaign 4-0, marking only the second time in Southern Conference history that the Catamounts had started league play by winning four-straight games.

“A New Era”

Making the start to SoCon play even more remarkable is the fact that the Catamounts had won a total of three games in two seasons prior to 2014.

It was one of the best coaching jobs from one season to the next in Southern Conference history.

The Catamounts started the season by raising some eyebrows, as the Catamounts set the tone for a strong season by going down to South Florida and going toe-to-toe with American Athetic Conference member South Florida before dropping a 36-31 decision.

After wins over non Division I members Brevard (45-21) and Catawba (35-17), the Catamounts were intent on making a statement to open Southern Conference play. The Catamounts’ first opponent just happened to be one of steeped in tradition and a program that was not only the defending SoCon champion, but also the one that had claimed more league titles (13) than any other member in league history, as Western headed to Furman for the “Battle of Purple.”

Western Carolina would snap an eight-game losing streak and claimed its first win in Paladin Stadium in two decades, handing the Paladins a 35-17 setback in Greenville. The story of that game was a Catamount offense that rolled up 411 yards in what was a balanced attack, while the defense limited the Paladins to 314 yards and held the Catamounts were able to limit Furman to its lowest point total in the series since 1997, when the Paladins were 17-16 losers in Cullowhee.

The win by the Catamounts snapped a streak of 22-straight road losses, including 15 straight road defeats at the hands of Southern Conference foes. Spearman Robinson was the hero of the day for the Catamounts, as the Palmetto State product, who starred at Greenwood High school, hauled in five passes for 120 yards and a pair of scores.

Following the win over Furman, the Catamounts were brought back to earth a little bit, as a late pick-six by defensive end Deonte Davis gave the Blue Hose its second win over a Southern Conference foe in 2014, as the Blue Hose posted a 19-14 victory over the Catamounts.

Western would follow that with three-straight Southern Conference wins over Wofford (26-14), Mercer (35-21) and The Citadel (29-15), setting up the game of the year in the league between the Catamounts and Mocs, as both league unbeatens faced off against each other in Cullowhee.

The Nov. 1 clash even saw snow fall at E.J. Whitmire Stadium, however, the Catamounts learned the hard way that there was still much work to be done if Western wished to Southern Conference champion, and it would be the Mocs’ big-game experience and talent that would show through in a resounding 51-0 win over the Catamounts in Cullowhee.

Western would be overwhelmed from the outset of the contest, and the game would never be close, as the Mocs carried a 38-0 lead into the halftime locker room. The Mocs rolled up 512 yards of total offense against the Catamount defense, including a season-high 386 on the ground en route to the blowout win.

Western would run into a red-hot Samford team the following week in Birmingham, and with its SoCon title hopes and FCS playoff aspirations severely damaged with the home loss to the Mocs, the Catamounts would see their struggles carry over to the game against the Bulldogs at Seibert Stadium.

The loss marked the Catamounts’ 11th-straight loss all-time to the Bulldogs, and despite the 34-20 road loss, quarterback Troy Mitchell continued to show why he was one of the best in the SoCon, rushing for a pair of scores while adding another scoring pass to Spearman Robinson in the loss.

Western would close out league play with another strong performance from Mitchell, who passed for a career-high five TDs and added a 55-yard TD run, in helping the Catamounts close out SoCon play in strong fashion, with a 42-27 win over VMI.

The SoCon regular-season finale saw the junior quarterback finish with 339 yards of total offense in the Catamounts’ throttling of the Keydets.

Western Carolina would finish out the season at No. 1 Alabama where they would suffer a 48-14 setback, putting up what was a good battle all things considered against the top team in college football.

Troy Mitchell would finish the day setting the total yards record for the Catamounts in the loss, finishing with 204 yards of total offense against the Crimson Tide to finish the season with 3,096 yards. He finished the game against the Crimson Tide with a pair of TD passes to redshirt sophomore Spearman Robinson. Robinson’s second scoring reception of the day pulled the Catamounts within 17-14 of the Crimson Tide in the second quarter, however, from there Alabama would score 31 unanswered points.

Fifteen Catamounts would end up garnering all-conference recognition by the Southern Conference, including three which were unanimous selections to the First-Team All-SoCon team. Redshirt sophomore wideout Spearman Robinson on offense, while senior defensive back Ace Clark and senior linebacker Christon Gill were unanimous selections on the second team.

Sophomore defensive back Trey Morgan, who tied for the league lead with six INTs, garnered second team All-SoCon honors as selected by the coaches, while garnering First-Team All-SoCon plaudits from the media.

Troy Mitchell, who finished the season connecting on 231-of-352 passes for 2,541 yards, with 20 TDs and nine INTs and rushed for 555 yards and six scores finished the season as a Second Team All-SoCon selection.

Next: Samford Bulldogs Recap