Wiedmer: Can Mocs tilt close games in their favor?

Wiedmer: Can Mocs tilt close games in their favor?

August 28th, 2014 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

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If not exactly an avalanche's worth of concern, the emails have steadily trickled in since late spring, one or two a month, all worrying about the same shortcoming regarding the recent history of University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football.

The latest one read: "In the various interviews I hear and read with Coach (Russ) Huesman, I don't see him being asked directly about the number of close games the team has lost the last 4 seasons. I would be interested in his response to: 'What is it going to take to tilt those close games in the favor of the Mocs this year?'"

Defining "close" is crucial. According to the 2014 UTC football media guide, the Mocs are a laudable 7-3 in games decided by between four and seven points since Huesman returned to his alma mater six years ago.

Perhaps that's why the coach said earlier this week, his Mocs in final preparations for tonight's season-opener at Central Michigan: "I think we've won a lot of close games. We've beaten ranked teams, too."

Yet change the definition of "close" under Huesman's watch to three points or less and this disturbing data emerges -- UTC is 1-9 in those contests since 2009, including nine straight defeats.

Of course, not all such losses are created equal. While at least a couple of those would certainly fall in the head-scratching category -- a come-from-ahead 28-27 home loss to The Citadel in 2011 and a 31-28 loss to those same Bulldogs in 2009 -- some were heroic in nature, especially 41-42 home loss to defending national champion Appalachian State in 2010, despite once owning a large second-half lead.

As one UTC official said of that game, "I've never seen so many people happy after a loss."

Also among those nine defeats was last year's 23-21 loss at Georgia Southern, which would almost certainly have been a win if not for a horrific official's call that the Southern Conference later apologized to Huesman for making, though that couldn't reverse the outcome, which probably cost the Mocs their first playoff berth since 1984.

Then there are the ones that seemed cursed, such as last year's devastating overtime loss at Samford, which included a poised and passionate comeback to force OT, but ended on a short missed field goal.

Nevertheless, the numbers are what they are, even if any Moc Maniac might understandably fall back on Mark Twain's famous line, "There are lies, [darn] lies and statistics," as a justifiable defense of the UTC coach.

So why might this year be different, beginning with tonight's titanic test against the FBS Chippewas?

"That's why I came back," said sixth-year senior defensive lineman Derrick Lott, who began his career as a Georgia Bulldog. "I wanted to help these guys win the close ones. It gets my blood boiling, all those losses. It's a big motivator. We want this so bad."

No one wants it more than Huesman's son -- junior quarterback Jacob Huesman.

"We've made finishing strong a priority since the end of last season," he said. "I also think that because of our experience from being in those [close games], we're starting to figure it out how to put it together at the end of the game."

And why wouldn't there be a learning curve? Until Huesman the coach arrived, UTC had experienced a total of seven winning seasons since 1984, and three of those came in '84, '85 and '87, all of them 6-5 finishes.

Since Huesman took over, UTC has posted four winning seasons in five years, including last year's 8-4 mark that included a six-game winning streak and a SoCon co-championship. Talk about figuring it out.

The sting of that Samford loss on Nov. 16 may also turn out to be a blessing. Assistant coach Will Healy is so determined to never let this team forget that painful evening that he's made it a screen saver on his office computer.

"So I see a reminder of it all the time," said Jacob Huesman. "Plus, I blame myself. If I'd run the ball better (he was hurt). If I'd competed the pass to Taharin [Tyson] in the end zone in overtime (Huesman finished 28-of-34 for 265 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions). If I'd just played a little better."

But if he hadn't played so well the Mocs never would have had a chance to win the eight games they did. The what-ifs can kill you. But they can also make you stronger. Smarter. Better.

"Another part of finishing strong is being in better condition," young Huesman added. "We're in better shape.We don't get as winded now. I think we're in peak physical condition."

All this positive energy could change on a missed field goal or botched extra point, of course. The kicking game has killed the Mocs during most of Russ Huesman's tenure, which may be one reason why last year's kicker, Nick Pollard, figures to punt only this year as former Baylor School product Henrique Ribeiro attempts to lock down the placekicking job.

After all, at least four of those nine losses were directly attributable to the kicking game, either because of a blocked kick or missed kick.

Not that any of these changes guarantees such close losses won't continue, starting tonight. But this might:

"We've got good players," said Coach Huesman. "We've got a lot of good players. We've got several exceptional players, including four or five guys who can take over games. Every great team has to have that. I'll say this until I'm done coaching -- players win games."

And having enough of those good players has almost always been the best way to tilt those close games in UTC's favor.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com