University of Tennessee at Chattanooga quarterback Alejandro Bennifield had every reason to be giddy with victory following the Mocs' 52-31 Southern Conference win over Mercer on Saturday afternoon.
After all, the junior had just thrown for 258 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. He and his teammates had just treated a homecoming crowd of 11,039 to a picture-perfect halftime lead of 38-3 on a picture-perfect early October afternoon, the temperature listed at 69 and nary a cloud in the sky.
Yet this was Bennifield's critical assessment of UTC's sixth win in six tries by an average victory margin of 29.6 points: "You can't say that you had a bad day when you score 52 points, but it could have been better."
When a 21-point win that wasn't nearly that close against a team that beat you the previous season "could have been better," well, you've got a pretty good football team.
Not that the Mocs can't improve. They were whistled for 87 yards in penalties. They were outscored 14-0 in the final, meaningless quarter. After finding success on their first two fourth-down conversion tries, they failed on their third.
So perhaps it could have been a bit better.
But not by much. Especially over those first two quarters. And most especially when that pinball prince of a running back, Derrick Craine, went bouncing and spinning and dancing for 54 yards and a titanic touchdown that put the Mocs up 21-3 a mere 59 seconds into the second period.
"Unexplainable," Bennifield said of that run. "He surprises me every time."
Said winning coach Russ Huesman afterward: "There's not a better back than him. He's incredible."
That Craine touchdown was so incredible that it must be considered as no worse than the second best run in the 20-year history of Finley Stadium, right behind — if it is behind — that December day in 1999 when Georgia Southern I-AA All-American Adrian Peterson reeled off a 58-yard run against Youngstown State in that year's national-title game that included no fewer than seven broken tackles. Craine appeared to break no more than six.
But Moc Maniacs could also quite fairly argue that Craine scored on his magnificent effort while Peterson was brought down short of the end zone.
"Oh, I think (Craine's) is No. 1," said UTC senior offensive guard Corey Levin. "He just runs so hard. He's amazing. He plays the game the way it should be played."
What Craine thought of this may not be known for a day or two. After suffering what Huesman termed "a lower body injury" in the third quarter, the McDonough, Ga., resident went to the sideline for good, then stayed in the locker room for treatment instead of meeting with the media. With a road trip to No. 9 and fellow unbeaten The Citadel (5-0) on tap for this Saturday, it is far more important that Craine walk the walk than talk the talk.
Especially since the Mocs scored 38 points when the 5-foot-10, 205-pounder was rushing for 160 yards and that touchdown and scored just 14 points with him on the sideline for all but four plays of the second half.
"He's tough in practice," linebacker Nakevion Leslie, who led the Mocs with 13 total tackles and a forced fumble, said of his classmate. "But we kind of look out for each other in practice. He's a different monster out there (in a real game)."
Craine is such a different monster that he's now averaging 113 yards a game and has now scored eight touchdowns for the season. His 2,594 career yards have him fifth on UTC's all-time rushing list.
So the Mocs were clearly concerned when their favorite monster sat on the turf early in the third period as training staff worked on him.
"I was pretty worried," Bennifield said. "But he's doing fine."
Added Levin: "I had faith he'd get up."
The Mocs are sure to be up for Saturday at The Citadel. A Southern Conference championship and automatic playoff berth probably hangs in the balance. Of slightly lesser importance, but meaningful none the less, would be seeding in the FCS playoffs. Win that one and the rest until Alabama on Nov. 19 and it's hard to see the Mocs with anything worse than a No. 2 seed in the postseason.
But much of that could well depend on how healthy Craine is against the Bulldogs.
Returning to that 54-yard run, the one that just might one day rank as the best ever seen at Finley, Leslie spoke of the reaction from him and his defensive mates as it unfolded.
"We were just like, 'Wow!'" he said. "We were all saying, 'Thank God he plays for us.'"
Especially if Craine can play for four quarters against The Citadel the way he played for two against Mercer.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org