Wiedmer: Mocs need more than Cole Copeland to save season

Wiedmer: Mocs need more than Cole Copeland to save season

October 8th, 2017 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns
UTC quarterback Cole Copeland (12) passes to UTC running back Richardre Bagley (23) during the Mocs' home football game against the Furman Paladins at Finley Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

UTC quarterback Cole Copeland (12) passes to UTC...

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

Behind University of Tennessee at Chattanooga true freshman quarterback Cole Copeland brightly burned the only numbers most folks ever will remember about the 2017 Mocs' fifth loss in their six football games to date. Those numbers on Finley Stadium's giant scoreboard beamed Furman 41, UTC 17.

Said the former Bradley Central High School star when asked what he was doing this time last year: "I think this was the weekend we played (Kingsport's) Dobyns-Bennett. This is a little different speed."

Though most of the Mocs aren't true freshmen, almost all of them seem to still be struggling to get up to speed with new coach Tom Arth and his staff's offensive and defensive schemes.

Yes, Saturday's defeat against the Paladins produced the most points UTC has scored inside Finley all season. Beyond that, that brief 10-7 advantage in the opening two minutes of the second quarter was the Mocs' first lead at home all season.

But if Copeland did manage to throw for two touchdowns and 317 yards — which is a UTC true freshman record for passing yardage — his four interceptions and minus-13 rushing yards in his first collegiate start were also a far cry from that 41-33 victory over Dobyns-Bennett this time last year, when he rushed for 95 yards and two touchdowns, threw for three touchdowns and 320 yards and looked like the best quarterback headed to the Mocs since former Baylor School star Jacob Huesman arrived to rewrite most of the UTC record book.

The difference is, Huesman redshirted as a true freshman. Six games into Copeland's first year out of high school, he's the starter, even if it's only because expected starter Alejandro Bennifield and backup Nick Tiano are sidelined with injuries.

But that's also as good a reason as any to explain why he may have thrown those four pickoffs, and why UTC totaled 7 yards rushing for the entire game, making one wonder when an Amber Alert will be sent out to find the Mocs' ground game.

Seven yards. And UTC was third in the SoCon a year ago with 206 yards per game, including 5.1 per carry. Saturday's Mocs? Try 0.4 yard per carry.

"Maybe five times we were in third (down) and 11-plus yards," Arth said afterward. "When you struggle to run the ball, it makes it tough."

Actually, there were six such thirds-and-11-pluses. But who's counting? What's known is that the Mocs have had it tough all year, in all phases, ever since the opening loss to Jacksonville State in Montgomery's venerable Cramton Bowl. Too little offense, especially in the running game. Too few playmakers. Too much talent and experience on the other sideline.

And now, though perhaps this needs to be delivered in a whisper: It's about to get worse. Maybe much worse. The Mocs' next four games — at Mercer this coming Saturday, against The Citadel on Oct. 21, at Samford on Oct. 28 and at Wofford on Nov. 4 — all come against teams with playoff dreams or teams historically capable of causing the Mocs problems.

When you're 1-5 on the season (1-2 in the SoCon), your two league losses have come by an average score of 43-12 and three of your next four games come against programs ranked in the FCS Top 25 (The Citadel, Samford and Wofford), these words from Arth don't exactly elicit confidence in future upsets: "It's hard to see (improvement). Not as much as we need it to be."

Copeland's 40-yard touchdown pass to Alphonso Stewart — who channeled his inner Julio Jones to turn in UTC's prettiest offensive play of the season — was clearly an improvement on offense. It gave the Mocs a brief lead. It foreshadowed the possibility, if not probability of better days to come.

And with Copeland's redshirt season now lost, along with all realistic playoff hopes, it would not be the worst decision in the world by Arth to play his true freshman QB as much as possible the rest of the way.

In fact, a far worse decision would be to waste a whole season for Copeland on this one game.

"You need one guy out there," Arth said when asked about his quarterback situation moving forward. "One voice. One leader."

But you need 11 guys working as one on each snap of the ball, brains and brawn in equal measure. And that's on the whole team, regardless of position.

"It felt good to have some explosive plays," said the senior Stewart. "And we finished. That's a big thing."

Added senior defensive lineman Taylor Reynolds, who had 10 total tackles: "We fought hard. Played until the end of the game. Our defense held them to six points in the second half."

It's a start. And for seemingly the first time all season other than the blowout outlier at VMI, the Mocs started well enough to grab a first-half lead via a touchdown.

But no matter where he was this time last year, Copeland knows the victories usually aren't earned until the final half.

"We had a great start," he said. "But we talk all the time about finishing. Anyone can start hot, but it's the great ones who finish."

That attitude may not save this season, but it may again make UTC a championship program somewhere down the road.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com

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