BOONE, N.C. - Playing with an injury-riddled defense that was practically held together with duct tape, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football team pulled off its best win in ages Saturday at Kidd Brewer Stadium.
Linebacker Nakevion Leslie intercepted a late Kameron Bryant pass and returned it 28 yards for the winning touchdown in the Mocs' 35-28 defeat of Appalachian State, stunning the crowd of 18,991.
UTC hadn't won in Boone since 1983 and never had won five straight Southern Conference games. The Mocs (7-2, 5-1) achieved both in their final game against Appalachian State (2-7, 2-4), which is joining the Sun Belt after this year. And they took over first place in the SoCon after Samford lost to The Citadel: Samford and idle Wofford each is 4-1 in league play.
"The best win I think I've ever been involved in," said UTC coach Russ Huesman, who was the defensive coordinator on Richmond's national championship team in 2008.
It was so special, Huesman said, because the Mocs overcame a tremendous defensive challenge. Against App State's talent-heavy offense, they lost starting linebacker Gunner Miller and backups Muhasibi Wakeel and A.J. Hampton during the game.
Backup safety C.J. Murrell, who hadn't practiced at linebacker once all season, was on the field for UTC's last few possessions.
"What we had to go through during the course of that game, just to get through it ... it was unbelievable," Huesman said.
UTC already was playing without two offensive starters, running back Keon Williams and wideout Tommy Hudson. Despite their absences, UTC rushed for 228 yards and had 355 yards of total offense.
Quarterback Jacob Huesman led the Mocs with 132 rushing yards and was 13-for-19 passing for 127 yards. He ran for a 7-yard score and threw touchdown passes of 31 yards (to Terrell Robinson) and 29 (to Xavier Borishade).
"It feels unreal," Jacob said of the win. "It hasn't even hit me yet."
He led the Mocs on their late game-winning drive against The Citadel last week. This time he got to watch from the sideline as the defense delivered the winning touchdown.
"Unbelievable job by the defense at the end," he said.
Appalachian State led 14-7 at halftime, but the Mocs got even midway through the third quarter on freshman Derrick Craine's 1-yard run. App State went up again with the third of running back Marcus Cox's three touchdown runs to lead 21-14 entering the final period.
While the Mocs' patchwork defense was getting stops -- including seven tackles for loss and three sacks -- Jacob threw his touchdown passes to Robinson and Borishade to give UTC a 28-21 lead with 9:04 to play.
App State answered quickly this time, with the help of a long kickoff return, and then the Mountaineers stuffed UTC's offense.
UTC punter Nick Pollard, who ran 17 yards for a first down on a fake earlier in the quarter, pooched a kick that Dee Virgin downed at the 3-yard line with 4:51 to play.
App State was able to move the ball to its 21, where defensive end Keionta Davis used an inside move to beat the left tackle and nearly sacked Bryant. The pressure affected the throw and Leslie was right there for the interception. He had open turf in front of him.
"I would have to say, the best play of my career -- by far," the redshirt freshman said. "[Thanks to] the pressure of my friend Keionta, [Bryant] threw it short and I was able to pick it and run with it."
UTC's defense needed one more stop after that. App State had 2:52 and three timeouts, so there was plenty of time to drive for the tie. The Mountaineers got all the way to the UTC 9, but passes on third and fourth down fell incomplete.
After UTC's gut-wrenching 23-21 loss at Georgia Southern on Sept. 28, Mocs All-America defensive end Davis Tull said it was the worst he'd ever felt after a game. So how did he feel Saturday?
"This is by far the best feeling I've ever had," said Tull, who had five tackles, a sack and two tackles for loss.
UTC's defense rose to the occasion when it had to, but not before App State was able to put up some big numbers. Cox ran for 158 yards and Bryant was 26-for-36 for 257 yards. UTC's run game got a bump from Craine, who had eight carries for 29 yards, including the 11-yard touchdown that tied the game at 14.
Now, with so many banged-up players, the Mocs have to figure out how to field a team when Wofford's Terriers visit next week. But that might be a worry for today and Monday. It was tears of joy, not pain, being shed by some Mocs after the game.
"[The current players had] never beaten App, so to come here and win this game, especially as a senior, it brought tears to my eyes after the game," said Mocs All-America linebacker Wes Dothard, who had 10 tackles. "These boys fought and they scratched and they clawed and they played their hearts out. It was a great win for us."
Contact John Frierson at email@example.com or 423-757-6268. Follow him at twitter.com/MocsBeat.