Few silver linings in UTC's blowout loss at UT

Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Tennessee defensive back Theo Jackson tackles UTC running back Elijah Ibitokun-Hanks during Saturday's game at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville.
photo Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Tennessee defensive back Theo Jackson tackles UTC running back Elijah Ibitokun-Hanks during Saturday's game at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville.

There are few silver linings in a 45-0 loss, and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football coach Rusty Wright had to dig deep to find one after Saturday's whipping at the hands of the Tennessee Volunteers.

On a day when his team committed five turnovers and compounded those mistakes with dropped passes, untimely penalties and, for the most part, very subpar play, the Mocs (1-2) did good work on the ground for the second consecutive week.

"For the most part we ran the ball well," Wright said of the team's 151-yard performance in Knoxville. "We found Ibi-Hanks (Elijah Ibitukon-Hanks), who ran the ball good, and we're going to be fine back there."

Ibitukon-Hanks, a graduate transfer from Albany who entered the season third on the depth chart behind returning starter and fellow senior Tyrell Price as well as freshman Ailym Ford, was impressive with 85 yards on 15 carries (5.7 average). On a day the Volunteers routinely penetrated into the UTC backfield, Ibitokun-Hanks did not have a negative-yardage carry.

A week earlier in a loss at Jacksonville State, when Price went out with a knee injury, it was Ford who stepped up by rushing for 127 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries. Ford added 41 yards at Tennessee.

While UTC's ground game was productive at Neyland Stadium, the same couldn't be said for its aerial attack. Mocs quarterbacks Nick Tiano and Drayton Arnold combined to complete just nine of 26 passes for 76 yards and four interceptions.

"It doesn't help when the ball hits your receivers in the hands and they drop the ball," Wright said of the team's five dropped passes. "There was one instance where a guy was somewhere Nick wasn't expecting him to be, but the rest of them are our errors.

"It's not what they did, it was either bad throws or guys not being in the right spot. We're nowhere near good enough to do those things."

Then there were the special teams, which Wright voiced concern about last week. Twenty-one of the Vols' points were directly related to that phase of the game. Tennessee returned the opening kickoff 64 yards - leading to a quick score - blocked the first UTC punt and returned it for a touchdown, then later a muffed punt snap led to another score.

"Obviously, you can't do those things and win against anyone," Wright said. "Again, we have to find a better way to prepare the kids, and that's on me."

The Mocs host James Madison (2-1) at 4 p.m. Saturday. The Dukes, ranked No. 2 in both Football Championship Subdivision polls entering this week, opened with a 20-13 loss to West Virginia before bouncing back with wins against fellow FCS programs Saint Francis (Pennsylvania), 44-7, and Morgan State, 63-12.

James Madison won the FCS title in 2016, played for the championship again the following year and reached the second round of the playoffs last season. The Dukes also won the national championship in 2004, when that level of NCAA football was still known as I-AA and the title game was played at Finley Stadium.

Wright is stressing patience in his first season, and he and his staff will focus on eliminating the self-destructive habits that seem to be forming. One thing he's not worried about is effort.

"I mean these kids will play. We may not be the smartest group, but we'll play," he said. "I know it's important to them, and they will play hard and they'll compete."

Contact Lindsey Young at lyoung@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6296. Follow him on Twitter @youngsports22.