Paschall: No sugarcoating it, this UTC loss was gut-wrenching

Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / UTC football coach Rusty Wright instructs his players during Saturday's SoCon game against Western Carolina at Finley Stadium.
Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / UTC football coach Rusty Wright instructs his players during Saturday's SoCon game against Western Carolina at Finley Stadium.

There were so many times Saturday inside Finley Stadium when it felt like the Rusty Wright era with the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga was about to go from good to great.

The Mocs, ranked 20th in the FCS coaches poll, led No. 17 Western Carolina 17-7 midway through the second quarter and got a tipped interception by Alex Mitchell at the Catamounts' 19-yard line, only to have replay turn the interception into an incompletion. A unique 2-point conversion pass from running back Ailym Ford to tight end Camden Overton with 53 seconds remaining gave UTC a 50-49 advantage, but then the Catamounts went into hyperdrive, zipping 60 yards in five plays and winning the thriller on a Richard McCollum 32-yard field goal as time expired.

UTC's dizzying 52-50 loss contained seven lead changes, and there hasn't been a more gut-wrenching home defeat for the Mocs in Wright's five seasons as head coach.

"Everybody was down," redshirt sophomore receiver Javin Whatley, who set a UTC record with 353 all-purpose yards, said when asked to describe the locker room. "It was a hard loss. Everybody was just down. We really couldn't believe that's how we just lost."

Added Mitchell: "That was a big loss, and it was a tough game. It was 50-49. We just didn't get it done at the end."

 

Everything about UTC's homecoming experience was extraordinary for the Mocs except for the final score. It was easily the most beautiful Saturday of the college football season around these parts, and the Marching Mocs, who have grown in membership from 45 to 160 in a really short time, put on pregame and halftime shows that this university has gone many years without experiencing.

Unfortunately for the Mocs, the same defense that had held The Citadel, Samford and Wofford to a combined average of 13.3 points per game and was limiting the Catamounts to seven points with six minutes before halftime suddenly and shockingly collapsed. Western Carolina wound up racking up 551 yards and averaging 11.5 yards per play, with its seven touchdowns coming from 55, 70, 28, 58, 37, 37 and 48 yards out.

"They're good on offense, and their running back (Desmond Reid) is a good player," Wright said. "They're big and athletic up front, and they give us trouble. They always have. They're going to score a lot of points on a lot of people."

Western Carolina's 48-yard touchdown was an interception return by linebacker Ed Jones IV that broke a 42-42 tie with 5:55 remaining.

"There are a lot of mixed emotions," Whatley said. "It was a good performance (personally), but at the end of the day, it doesn't mean anything. We just want to win."

UTC has reached the midway mark of its season with a 4-2 overall record, a 3-1 Southern Conference mark and with little to no room for error before the Mocs visit Alabama on Nov. 18. The Mocs were in the FCS playoff picture each of the past two seasons before experiencing November nosedives, and a loss in either of the next four weeks against Mercer, East Tennessee State, Virginia Military Institute or Furman would leave committee members deciding their postseason fate.

It's admittedly a tough landscape for Wright and his program given that the TSSAA has teams with 2-8 and 3-7 records making the playoffs, the FBS has 6-6 teams invited to bowl games and the NFL has 8-9 division winners, such as last season's Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFC South.

"A month ago, we were dead, you know?" Wright said in reference to the 41-27 opening stumble at North Alabama. "Now we're sitting here 4-2, and we're 3-1 in the league with what I think is a pretty good football team. We've got an opportunity to keep playing and finish this thing out. If we had won, we would have showed up to work tomorrow and Monday.

"We're going to go try and figure it out, but I know they're hurting, and they've got every right to be."

Saturday's loss dropped Wright to 26-19 as UTC's coach and to 22-11 in SoCon games. The Mocs have won two-thirds of their league contests under his guidance, which is a far greater clip than UTC's all-time SoCon mark of 167-167-2 since joining in 1977.

Yet Wright was Russ Huesman's linebackers coach when the Mocs won three consecutive SoCon titles from 2013-15, so he has experienced what it takes to reach the conference summit.

"We're 3-1 in this league, and I have a feeling this league is going get crazy before it's over," Wright said. "We've just got to keep playing."

Contact David Paschall at [email protected].

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