MOUNT PLEASANT, Mich. — The opportunity to pull off a road upset of an FBS opponent was within reach for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football team, right up until the final two minutes of Thursday's season-opening game.
But turnovers and other mistakes, often the deciding factors in early-season games, led to a 20-16 loss to Central Michigan at Kelly/Shorts Stadium.
"Penalties and turnovers. We're going to win games by not turning it over and not having stupid penalties, and too many of those things happened," UTC coach Russ Huesman said. "But you have to give them a lot of credit. We played an FBS program that's a good team and well coached.
"We had some guys who made big plays. Obviously Jacob [Huesman, the Mocs' quarterback] didn't play very well. He'll bounce back. When they tip four passes, something's not right.
"Our guys are down. They wanted to win a football game here. But to have the thing only down 20-16 with a few minutes to go in the game, to me, was amazing."
The first two Central Michigan scoring drives were kept alive by personal-foul penalties on the Mocs, both times after they had stopped the Chippewas on third down, and quarterback Huesman had a career-worst four interceptions, with three of those coming off deflections at the line.
"They blitzed a lot more than we anticipated and got a lot of pressure," the junior said. "And you're not going to win when your quarterback turns it over four times. Bottom line. Defensively they did a heck of a job. They made some adjustments at halftime and we didn't respond well.
"I think our team showed a lot of fight. We faced a lot of adversity in this game. Defensively our guys battled. We just have to take care of the ball better."
UTC looked in control heading toward halftime, taking a 16-0 lead on a career-best 47-yard field goal from Henrique Ribeiro, a 13-play, 94-yard drive capped by a diving 8-yard touchdown catch by Tommy Hudson and a 70-yard scoring hookup from Huesman to Hudson.
The Chippewas scored late in the first half, helped by a UTC penalty. After stopping CMU on third down, the Mocs were called for a personal foul when defensive end Zach Rayl hit CMU quarterback Cooper Rush's helmet. With new life on the drive, Central Michigan covered the next 56 yards in just three plays, capped by Rush's 18-yard scoring pass to Jesse Kroll.
The Chippewas then opened the second half with an impressive 12-play, 74-yard drive that again was kept alive by a third-down personal-foul penalty on the Mocs. After Derrick Lott sacked Rush at the UTC 11, Nakevion Leslie was called for a late hit on a CMU offensive lineman. Two plays later, Thomas Rawls scored to cut the Mocs' lead to 16-13.
UTC's next offensive series ended quickly when defensive end Blake Serpa leaped to intercept a batted Huesman pass at the Mocs' 20. It took Central Michigan just two plays to find the end zone again, with Courtney Williams' 26-yard touchdown catch giving the hosts their first lead.
The Chippewas outgained UTC 144-9 in second-half total yards. The Mocs defense continually kept them in the game.
All-America defensive lineman Davis Tull chased down Titus Davis at the Mocs' 20 to prevent a touchdown on a long punt return, and on the ensuing series, he and Danny Ring helped stop the Chippewas on fourth-and-1 at the 10. Tull also was credited with a blocked 23-yard field-goal attempt in the fourth quarter that kept the score at 20-16.
"I feel like we held our own against an offensive line that averaged 300 pounds," Lott said. "We weren't manhandled up front. Most of the time we didn't allow ourselves to get blocked.
"It's very disappointing because we had chances. But we won't see many teams as big up front, so this is going to help us out going into the season."
Contact Stephen Hargis at email@example.com or 423-757-6293.
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 24 years, having been with the Times Free Press since its inception, and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards, including seven in 2013 and a combined 12 in the last two years. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers ...