During his Tuesday meeting with the media, Tom Arth used words such as "adversity" and "battle-tested" when describing his University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football team.
Through two weeks, the 15th-ranked Mocs have faced a top-five Football Championship Subdivision opponent (Jacksonville State) and LSU, the 12th-ranked team in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Things aren't expected to get much easier this week, as UT-Martin — receiving votes in the FCS STATS poll — comes to Chattanooga for the Mocs' home opener at 6 p.m. at Finley Stadium.
The early-season schedule indeed has made the UTC team battle-tested. Issues off the field have helped it deal with adversity. Before the season even began, the team had lost third-team preseason All-America linebacker Dale Warren for six games for a violation of NCAA rules. Then, on the eve of the season opener against the Gamecocks, the Mocs found out that quarterback Alejandro Bennifield, a second-team All-Southern Conference selection last season and the team's leader, would be out for four games for an NCAA academic issue.
Couple that with the fact that everybody was learning a new scheme, and a slow start wasn't a surprise.
"I think we've dealt with this as a team really well," defensive tackle Taylor Reynolds said. "We've started 0-2, but Coach Arth has talked about hitting the reset button and getting this thing going. We have a great opportunity at home to play a nonconference game against a really good opponent, but at the end of the day it's a great game for us to see where we're at and where we're headed.
"We've faced a lot of adversity this year already, but I think it's better for it to happen now than later in the season, because when we get in the playoffs, it's one and done. I think we'll keep building every week, and at the end of this thing we'll be happy."
Running back Darrell Bridges talked Tuesday of the team's transition from week one to week two. It was evident in the game's first two drives offensively, when the Mocs gained 98 yards against an LSU defense that had allowed 97 to BYU in the entire season opener. The progress also was evident in the second quarter, when Bridges broke free for a 27-yard gain that put the Mocs in field-goal range.
It was evident when quarterback Nick Tiano made a nice step-up in the pocket and found Joseph Parker for a 67-yard throw-and-catch that preceded Bridges' 16-yard scoring run.
"Our players have been through the fire," Arth said. "It's so important to have this early in the year. I know certain situations in the past for me, we didn't face adversity until later in the year, and it becomes more difficult to deal with. We've faced adversity early on — we faced it before we set foot on the field this year — so I think as long as coaches have the right mindset and transmit that mindset to our team and we handle it the right way, it's all really good, really positive, making us better and helping us get to where we're ultimately capable of being."
The approach has been to learn from mistakes and apply them to the following week. This week's game against the Skyhawks provides yet another opportunity to do that.
"It's definitely about overcoming," Bridges said. "That's what great teams do; they overcome adversity. I think this week will be that much better than it was at LSU, and in future weeks we'll continue to progress. That's what great teams do, and I like where we're at right now."
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