While the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's already-thin defense was getting thinner during Saturday's 31-9 win against Furman at Finley Stadium, the unit managed to still play its best game of the season.
The Mocs' defense, which came into the game leading the Southern Conference in total and scoring defense, was tested time after time, especially in the second quarter. UTC (4-2, 2-1 SoCon) held Furman to three field goals and 189 yards of total offense.
"Defensively, that was our best effort of the year," Mocs coach Russ Huesman said Sunday. "I thought we played really well. I told our guys, we looked like a defense should look with good players on it.
"We looked focused, we bent our knees, used our hands, didn't give up big plays -- I was pretty happy with the defense."
Three Mocs turnovers in the second quarter led to great field position three times for the Paladins (2-4, 1-2), who managed just a pair of field goals in a 15-minute period in which they had the ball for 12:12.
UTC scored early in the second to go up 14-0, having not yet allowed a Furman first down. A Jacob Huesman interception gave the Paladins the ball at their 46-yard line. So how did the defense respond? Furman wound up settling for a 50-yard field goal.
On the ensuing kickoff, Chaz Moore fumbled and Furman linebacker T.J. Warren, a Chattanooga native, recovered the ball at the UTC 41.
Furman was able to drive inside the 10 for a first-and-goal, but linebacker Wes Dothard stopped a run for a 1-yard loss, Dothard and fellow linebacker Gunner Miller limited the next play to a 1-yard gain and defensive tackle Daniel Ring sacked Duncan Fletcher for a 5-yard loss on third down, forcing Furman to settle for another field goal.
Furman's next drive started at the UTC 35 after Jacob was sacked and stripped, but UTC defensive end Davis Tull returned the favor two plays later by sacking and stripping Flecther, recovering the fumble himself.
UTC's defensive line was playing without tackle Derrick Lott, who had season-ending elbow surgery last Friday, and end Keionta Davis, who missed the game with a bruised knee.
Tull, the All-American and 2012 SoCon defensive player of the year, had his best game of 2013 with 3.5 sacks. It was a ball-hunting night for Tull, who also forced a pair of fumbles.
"I've been working on that," he said of swiping at the ball in the quarterback's hand, "I actually tried it earlier in the game and missed a few sacks because of it. But it paid off on those two plays."
Both Dothard and Miller were out of the game with shoulder stingers by the fourth quarter. Huesman said both will be held out of contact during practice this week leading up to the Elon game, but he anticipated both being available against the Phoenix.
Huesman said backups Muhasibi Wakeel and A.J. Hampton did a solid job filling in for the fifth-year seniors. Hampton had a big play on special teams earlier in the game with a blocked punt.
"They did a nice job. They came in and battled and were near where they were supposed to be," Huesman said. "[Wakeel] has played a lot of football for us, so we expect that from him. With A.J., who hasn't played as much, he did a good job."
Out of 65 offensive plays by Furman, nine resulted in a loss -- with 6.0 sacks -- and UTC recovered a fumble, intercepted a pass and blocked a punt. The Paladins came in averaging 320.8 yards per game and were held nearly 132 yards short of that.
"We played well and came up with a good strategy for them," Mocs defensive end Toyvian Brand said. "We basically have the mentality of we want to improve and be a great defense. We don't want to give up anything."
Contact John Frierson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6268. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/MocsBeat.