Bucs eager for opportunity on Big Ten stage

This was supposed to be a bye week for both Indiana and Charleston Southern, a period of rest and preparation for the conference season to come.

Hurricane Irma, of course, changed those plans.

For the Hoosiers, an early-September cancellation by Florida International left them with merely five home games — and one less win penciled in for the program’s march to bowl eligibility.

For the Buccaneers, the cancelled Week 2 contest with South Carolina State meant the possibility of a second consecutive year with merely 10 regular season games.

But Indiana and Charleston Southern quickly agreed to a deal, as two programs looking to recoup respective regular season games lost to the storm. Indiana found a beatable opponent willing to travel to Bloomington on short notice and Charleston Southern received a $500,000 windfall for its troubles, a payment that can go a long way for a Football Championship Subdivision athletic department.

Even so, Charleston Southern’s first-year coach Mark Tucker paused to weigh both sides of the decision to play IU. Shoehorning a trip to Indiana one week before the start of Big South Conference season meant 10 consecutive weeks of football for his program, an unenviable challenge that Indiana is also forced to navigate.

But Tucker also wanted to avoid a repeat of last season, when his senior class was denied a full slate of games after Hurricane Matthew rolled up the East Coast, forcing the cancellation of a scheduled game against Albany State a year ago this week.

So with the competitive spirit of his players in mind, Tucker agreed to the game with IU, giving the Bucs a chance to test themselves against a Big Ten program.

“It’s not that I didn’t want to play, but I got to the place where I had to be a devil’s advocate,” Tucker said. “This means 10 straight weeks. This means giving up an open week before a conference opener. Let’s evaluate everything before we just start saying, ‘Yeah, let’s go.’ I want to do it for our kids. Our captains unanimously said, ‘Coach, let’s go play.’ So I told our athletic director, Hank Small, ‘Yeah.’ Our kids want to play, I want to play, our coaches want to play, so let’s go.”

The Buccaneers (2-2) have recently found their feet this season, heading to Bloomington on the heels of a 66-0 victory over Division II Point University on Sept. 23 and a 58-7 win over Mississippi Valley State last Saturday.

The start to the season, however, began with a much different tone.

Charleston Southern got whooped at Mississippi State, picking up merely two first downs and racking up only 33 yards of total offense in a 49-0 blowout defeat in the season opener.

“We went down to Starkville and got absolutely overwhelmed offensively against an unbelievably fast, lean, dramatically physically charged unit with a brand new defensive coordinator that wanted to make a statement from the get-go,” Tucker said. “I knew we had matchup issues, but oh lord. … They embarrassed us. It affected our kids. Then, we immediately transition back and we had the hurricane issue, so that lingered a little longer.”

Two weeks after the opener, CSU struggled to stop the run in a 19-17 defeat at Elon.

“From our perspective, we felt like we let one get away,” Tucker said.

Fast forward two weeks and the back-to-back wins have helped restore morale for the Buccaneers, who along with Kennesaw State, were the preseason co-favorites to claim the Big South crown.

Charleston Southern has enjoyed a successful run at the FCS level in recent seasons, averaging almost nine wins per year since 2013. The Bucs have won at least a share of the conference title in each of the last two seasons, earning the Big South’s automatic bid to the FCS Playoffs in 2015 and 2016.

“We’ve built a standard here that’s relevant to us,” Tucker said. “The young men in our program right now have never known anything but success. We built the standard.”

Saturday will be CSU’s 20th game against a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent, a level at which the Bucs have yet to win a game.

But for Tucker’s program, this week is about experience. It’s about stepping into a Big Ten venue and making the most of an opportunity that, until roughly one month ago, wasn’t on the table.

“It’s the opportunity to go compete on a big stage,” Tucker said. “It’s exciting. We’re grateful for the opportunity to get the game. Indiana seemed fairly eager to work out the deal, so we’re coming to Indiana.”