The Samford Bulldogs are a first down away from being 6-1, ranked among the top 15 in the Football Championship Subdivision and tied for first place in the Southern Conference.
Needing a yard for a first down that would would have let the Bulldogs run out the clock and pull off a massive win over Appalachian State last week, Samford gave the ball to running back Jeremiaha Gates on second and third down. The Mountaineers stuffed him for no gain both times and Samford was forced to punt.
Appalachian State took over on offense with 1:33 on the clock and scored the game-winning touchdown with 22 seconds left for a 28-25 win. The loss, Samford coach Pat Sullivan said, "took an awful lot of wind out of our sails."
The Bulldogs (5-2, 3-2 SoCon) travel to Finley Stadium on Saturday to face a University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (3-3, 2-1) squad that is feeling good after a pair of conference road wins.
In late July, at the Spartanburg (S.C.) Marriott during the SoCon's media day, Sullivan had an air of confidence about him as he talked about his team. The Bulldogs went 6-5 (4-4 SoCon) last season and returned many of their best players, including running back Fabian Truss and receivers Kelsey Pope and Riley Hawkins.
"I think our program has grown, and I think I told you before the beginning of the season, I like this football team," Sullivan said Tuesday. "It didn't just start in August. I thought they got on a mission back in January when we started our offseason program."
That mission led to a 4-0 start for Samford, before losing 35-16 at Georgia Southern. The Bulldogs routed The Citadel 38-7 the following week and had their hearts broken by the Mountaineers last Saturday.
"I think this is a huge, huge week for our football team," Sullivan said.
Mocs coach Russ Huesman could say the same for his team, which is one of four SoCon teams with one loss. Samford and The Citadel have two league losses and neither can afford another to remain in the title mix.
Huesman said the Bulldogs look good on film from every angle.
"You want to look for weaknesses, whether it's in the kicking game or up front, and the thing that I've noticed about Samford is that I don't believe they have any weaknesses," Huesman said. "They're so solid in every aspect."
Samford leads the SoCon in opponent third-down conversions (22.8 percent), sacks (18) and interceptions (12), and it is fourth in scoring offense (29.4 ppg), scoring defense (20.1 ppg), total offense (401.9 ypg) and total defense (349.1 ypg). They also do most of the little things well.
individually, Hawkins leads the league in punt return average and Truss is first in kick return average and all-purpose yards.