BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — With only about 10 yards separating Alex Mitchell from the end zone at Siebert Stadium and the first touchdown of his University of Tennessee at Chattanooga career, the sophomore linebacker started to run out of breath.
There was a Samford player bearing down on him, but UTC edge rusher Jay Person took care of the would-be tackler with a block, and all Mitchell had to do was get to the finish line.
“The ball had landed in my arms, and I was like, ‘Oh, I’ve got to get out of here, so I just ran,” Mitchell said. “We got there. That’s all that mattered, but it made us excited. It gave us a big momentum shift in the game, and I think we just never let up after that.”
Mitchell’s interception and 38-yard return came 11 seconds after the UTC offense scored, giving the Mocs a 13-0 advantage just 3:39 into the contest against the reigning Southern Conference champions. The offense was solid and the defense would add another score in a 47-24 win over the Bulldogs in front of 10,870 at Seibert, with UTC improving to 8-2 in the last 10 games against its closest conference rival.
“We did what we were supposed to do offensively on that first drive, then they gave us a gift and we took advantage of it,” UTC coach Rusty Wright said. “That’s what you’re supposed to do.”
The Mocs (3-1, 2-0) improved to 34-11-3 in the all-time series with the Bulldogs (1-3, 0-2) by avenging their 35-24 loss to Samford last November at Finley Stadium. Samford, which reached the quarterfinals of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs last fall, was ranked in both major FCS polls this week, 17th by coaches and 20th by media.
UTC will complete a two-game road swing when it faces winless Wofford at 7 p.m. next Saturday in Spartanburg, South Carolina. The Terriers (0-4) opened their SoCon schedule Saturday with a 17-14 loss at Virginia Military Institute.
Samford's offense totaled 473 yards Saturday, but after UTC's quick strikes, the hosts never got closer than 10 points, with the Mocs doing enough to hold off the high-powered Bulldogs at every turn.
Mocs quarterback Chase Artopoeus continued his solid play as a first-year starter with 21 completions on 26 attempts for 323 yards and the game’s opening score, a 47-yard touchdown pass to Tyler “Smoke” Smith. The ground game was far from solid, averaging less than 3 yards per carry, but Ailym Ford got in the end zone twice and fellow senior running back Gino Appleberry added another rushing touchdown.
Special teams was a mixed bag for the Mocs. Jude Kelley was 2-for-2 on field-goal attempts, including a career-long 48-yard kick, but he missed an extra-point try. Kickoff specialist Clayton Crile sent the ball out of bounds twice and was wide on a 52-yard field-goal attempt, and his lone punt went just 24 yards, but four of his kickoffs were touchbacks through the end zone.
UTC cornerback Kam Brown also returned an interception for a touchdown, stepping in front of a Michael Hiers screen pass and taking it 78 yards the other way, giving the Mocs two defensive scores in a single game for the first time since a Montrell Pardue fumble return and a Lucas Webb interception return against Weber State in the first round of the 2016 FCS playoffs.
Brown’s score with 7:23 to play — his second interception return for a touchdown during his UTC career — finally salted the game away. That's something the Mocs weren’t able to do in their only other road game so far this season, a 41-27 opening loss at the University of North Alabama, where the Mocs led 27-21 with 9:50 remaining.
While that game wasn’t in the minds of the Mocs, their latest win demonstrated growth over the season's first month as they showed they can put away a road win.
“It’s definitely something that we can point to during a game,” Artopoeus said. “Coach (Wright) actually brought it up midweek, that Samford can do exactly what UNA did. We knew if we did get a lead, we had to definitely keep our foot on their throats.”
UTC Sam Phillips had 98 yards on 11 catches, and Jamoi Mayes had his third consecutive 100-yard receiving game with 114 yards on four receptions. Defensively, Josh Battle had a team-high nine tackles for the Mocs, with Jordan Walker chipping in eight.
Contact Gene Henley at [email protected].