CONWAY — The week following Coastal Carolina’s loss to Stony Brook last month – its fourth straight defeat at that point – assistant coach Renato Diaz was about to go through film in a special teams meeting when he decided there was something he needed to say first.
While the Chanticleers at 2-4 and a game behind the league-favorite Seawolves seemed a dark horse at best to find their way into the playoffs, well, there were still five games remaining and the veteran coach had seen stranger things happen.
“He got up before the meeting and he was just saying, ‘Believe. It could happen,’ ” senior Marcus Whitener recalled this week. “He just wanted us to keep focus, not give up on the season because so many people after the game [got] down like, ‘Oh man, the season’s over.’ But coach Diaz, he just made a point that the season wasn’t over, we still had a chance, it was a possibility. He tried to pass that mentality onto us and we tried to play with that mentality.”
And as the Chants head into their finale against Charleston Southern on Saturday afternoon at Brooks Stadium, the season is indeed still very much alive.
Coastal (6-4, 4-1 Big South) needs only a win over the visiting Buccaneers (5-5, 3-2) and for Liberty to also defeat VMI to force a three-way tie for the Big South championship between the Chants, Flames and idle Stony Brook. With that, Coastal would claim the tiebreaker of best road record in league play and secure the conference’s automatic FCS playoff berth to complete a wild second-half surge.
That scenario did seem highly unlikely a month ago, but if any team would have had a reason to believe in such possibilities, it would be this veteran Coastal bunch.
“To be honest, I did, because in 2010 a similar situation happened – probably even less of a chance than what was possible this season,” senior tight end David Duran said. “I knew it was a possibility because we’ve been there before and I’m happy to be where we are at now.”
Two seasons ago, the Chants won their final four regular-season games to finish 6-5 and caught a big break as Liberty upset Stony Brook in a high-scoring victory that created a three-way tie between the teams. Coastal ended up with the tiebreaker, which was then fewest points allowed in conference play, and slipped into the playoffs for just the second time in program history.
Following a similar script, they’re in position to do it again thanks to Liberty’s upset over a then-No. 6-ranked Stony Brook team last week while the Chants took care of their own business at Presbyterian for their fourth-straight win.
“Being that we have new life is huge,” senior center Pat Williams said. “Everybody’s walking around with smiles on their faces, the emotions are different right now.”
Diaz, meanwhile, thought back to that moment in mid-October after the 27-21 loss to Stony Brook that dealt any such postseason hopes a serious setback at the time. He could sense some deflation among the Coastal players and being a self-described “eternal optimist,” he didn’t like the vibe that was settling in among the team then.
“I think they needed to hear it,” Diaz said. “… I think there was a little bit of a lull in our spirit at that time. I told them, ‘Anything’s possible. You’ve just got to keep playing. You never know what’s going to happen.’ I just felt compelled to tell them that.”
So here they are, riding the most dominant four-game winning streak in program history – with all four wins coming by at least 22 points and by an average margin of 32.8 – and on the doorstep to the postseason if everything falls in place one more time.
Liberty (5-5, 4-1) should be considered overwhelming favorites against a struggling VMI team (2-8, 1-4) that has lost five straight games, leaving the bulk of the burden on the Chants this week.
Charleston Southern snapped a 15-game losing streak earlier this season and has since won five of its last seven games against a very favorable schedule. CCU head coach Joe Moglia has noted on a couple occasions this week that the Buccaneers are ranked fourth nationally in pass defense (149.9 yards allowed per game) and 23rd in rushing offense (202 yards per game) while making the point that they are a formidable obstacle.
So it comes down to this.
“I believe we are supposed to win this game,” Moglia said. “But they’re a good enough team that if … we don’t take care of business, [if we have] a couple of turnovers, anything along those lines, they can upset us. All we’ve got to do is continue to do what we’re doing and we’ll be OK. This is not one of those days to have a ‘bad day.’ ”
Contact RYAN YOUNG at 626-0318.