With last season’s struggles in mind, South Carolina State Bulldogs seek ‘revenge tour’
Coach Buddy Pough and his players focus on accountability in quest for another Celebration Bowl
South Carolina State University entered the 2022 football season riding high off of its Celebration Bowl win, set on repeating as champions.
But after finishing last in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference with a 3-8 overall record (1-4 MEAC), coach Buddy Pough’s worst record since 2017 when the team went 3-7 (2-6 MEAC), the Bulldogs are entering this season with more focus and humility.
“We were a little bit fat around the edges after having gone through that good season in ’21. We got a little bit ahead of ourselves. We came in last year thinking that we were going to just kind of go out and it was gonna happen,” Pough said at the MEAC/SWAC Challenge news conference in July. “I think we know better now, so we got to see [if] we can make it happen in a little different manner.”
South Carolina State will have the opportunity to start its season on a high note when it faces Jackson State University in a rematch of the 2021 Celebration Bowl during the MEAC/SWAC Challenge in Atlanta on Saturday. This season also will be the last for Pough, who told the team today of his plans to retire.
“We kind of took that [start in Atlanta, finish in Atlanta] approach when the schedule came out [and] we found out we’re playing the MEAC/SWAC Challenge this year,” said graduate senior Corey Fields, the starting quarterback for the Bulldogs.
“[It’s] a revenge tour for teams that we played before. Certainly last year, they got the best of us, so we’re kind of planning our get back this year.”
South Carolina State has shifted personnel, replacing both its offensive and defensive coordinators. Pough replaced offensive coordinator Bennett Swygert with Kevin Magouirk, and defensive coordinator Jonathan Saxon left the program to take a similar job with Wofford College. Saxon was replaced by Thomas Howard, who was the defensive passing coordinator for North Carolina A&T in 2022.
“Some of the people who were there last year as we were going through the issue that we went through last year [are] no longer there,” Pough said. “That’s motivation in a way that you will always know that with success you get benefits, and with failure there are some benefits that also come about.”
However, numerous starters from Pough’s Celebration Bowl roster are returning this season, including Fields, graduate senior defensive linebacker Jeblonski Green Jr. and defensive lineman Patrick Godbolt. Major departures for the Bulldogs include Shaquan Davis, who is currently with the New Orleans Saints hoping to make their 53-player roster, and BJ Davis, who transferred to East Carolina University.
Fields, who has been with the Bulldogs for six seasons, is a natural lead-by-example quarterback, but after a long team meeting at the end of last season he’s one of several team leaders taking a new approach this season and hoping it will pay dividends for the team.
“I think for the summer [we] came with the whole motto: We will hold each other accountable as leaders on the team. Last year, we missed that as a team to have [many] vocal leaders, especially for the older guys. So this whole summer, we took that approach when everyone got here. It was like, I needed to be more vocal.”
Although he was in only his second season as a starter when he led the Bulldogs to their Celebration Bowl victory, Fields has consistently found ways to improve his skills and build team chemistry. He has spent most of the offseason with the new members of the running back and receiving corps to develop a rapport and break down routes.
“He’s almost like having a coach on the field, so it’s great having that guy back,” Pough said. “We’ve got a new offensive coordinator, so it’s a little bit different kind of setup as far as how we do stuff given those circumstances, but it’s always good to have a guy in your scheme that you can depend on to know what to do.”
Last season is still fresh in the seniors’ minds, and the players remember the moment their season was derailed.
“After we beat [North Carolina] Central, everybody thought that we were already going to the Celebration Bowl,” Godbolt said. “When we lost to Morgan, it all fell apart.”
Godbolt, a preseason All-MEAC first team player, is one of the leaders for the Bulldogs’ defensive unit. He has taken pride in bringing new players up to speed with their new defensive playbook and making sure the team is more united this season, eliminating tension that caused the team to end the season on a four-game skid.
“All I gotta say is it’s been more team building because everybody wasn’t on the same page last year, so this year everybody’s trying to come together so we can be the same team we were in 2021,” Godbolt said. “Everybody just wants to get back to the team we was, because that feeling of losing all them games last year just didn’t feel good. It just wasn’t the same.”
While some may try to chalk up the season as a fluke, when Fields sees players unfocused or lacking accountability, he’s quick to remind them what can happen again.
“We know how it felt to be 3-8, and I felt each and every Saturday it was a hard feeling,” Fields said. “So, you know, each day in practice we keep going [at] each other on offense, defense, even on special teams just to try to get better because at the end of the day we don’t want to have that same feeling we did before.
“Throughout the summer we remind them we was 3-8. We use those memories. It’d be motivation each and every day to focus on what we got to do.”
Players know their matchup against Jackson State on Saturday is their first opportunity to show all the changes and improvements they’ve made since last season. Unlike their last matchup, where MEAC coaches had an additional week to analyze nearly a dozen game tapes, this time Pough & Co. are preparing for a new coaching staff and roster with numerous unknowns.
“It’s a tough deal to not know personnel and possibly coaching staff, so we’ve got a little bit of an uphill battle in front of us,” Pough said. “We’ve got to get good [at] fundamentals [and] just doing the basic things so that we can then go in and just have a good, sound approach on both sides of the ball. And then as the game goes on, we’ll figure some things out.”
After a season of hard lessons, Fields has more appreciation for each game this season. He isn’t overlooking the program’s first game against Jackson State and he knows not to overlook any of the team’s conference games, where one loss can determine whether his team takes a trip back to Atlanta for the Celebration Bowl.
“I’ll say each week, we know that no matter who you’re playing, you can lose just that fast. The [other] team can have your number that day,” Fields said. “So, each day going through the game you can’t take it for granted, and just know at the end of the day you have to make each play count.
“We understand nobody really wants us to win, but I want the guys to show the world that if we did it before, well, we can do it again.”