Slow start hurts UTC in home loss as Samford celebrates SoCon title

Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Samford's Kendall Watson, a former McCallie standout, avoids the tackle attempt of UTC's Shamar Jones during Saturday's showdown of SoCon title hopefuls Saturday at Finley Stadium.
Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Samford's Kendall Watson, a former McCallie standout, avoids the tackle attempt of UTC's Shamar Jones during Saturday's showdown of SoCon title hopefuls Saturday at Finley Stadium.

University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football coach Rusty Wright said all the expected things Saturday afternoon in the aftermath of the Mocs' 35-24 home loss to Southern Conference leader Samford. So did the UTC players who spoke.

The Mocs had entered the game as 4.5-point favorites against the one-loss Bulldogs, with the winning team in pole position to secure the SoCon's automatic bid for the 24-team Football Championship Subdivision playoffs. UTC had become known for its dominant first halves at home this season, and with 15 seniors being honored before what could have been their final game at Finley Stadium, the Mocs were bound to come out of the gate hot, right?

Except they didn't. It was the Bulldogs who scored 21 consecutive first-half points to build an 18-point lead at intermission. It was the visitors' defense that looked fast and athletic while making plays all over the field.

It was Samford (9-1, 7-0) that had 28 points, 318 first-half yards and 21 first downs in the first half against an opponent that had the SoCon's top scoring defense entering the week, while UTC (7-3, 5-2) piled up a lot of first-half yards but struggled to get the ball in the end zone.

In short, it was stunning.

"You've got to give Samford credit. They came out and played like they'd been playing all year. I think we were ready for that, per se," Wright said. "I think we were ready to play; I don't think we were ready for how fast it was going to be, and they took advantage of it. I knew we had to do well on first down defensively and we didn't, and anytime you can let that get going, it's going to be hard to handle, and we didn't do a very good job in personnel."

Samford entered Saturday ranked ninth by FCS coaches and 10th in the Stats Perform Top 25, with the Mocs 12th and 11th, respectively, in those polls. And now the Bulldogs, who had lost seven straight in the series with UTC, are SoCon champions for the first time since 2013.

Although the Mocs were at home, in the second half they took a page from what has been their road playbook: As in nearly every away game this season, they rallied in the second half instead of completely fading. This time, though, miscommunication in key moments and poor execution in others cost UTC when it had a chance to really put a dent in the deficit.

When executing well was vital for the Mocs — because Samford scores touchdowns — in a game with so much on the line, they didn't. Two examples:

Score, 28-7. UTC drove deep into the red zone but settled for a field goal with 14 seconds to play in the first half because of bad clock management.

Score, 28-17, third quarter. UTC had scored on the first possession of the second half to trim its deficit, but on the Bulldogs' first play from scrimmage in the period, Michael Hiers went deep and found a streaking D.J. Rias for an 80-yard score to return their advantage to 18. The Mocs then drove back downfield, only for Preston Hutchinson to throw an interception in the end zone.

Hutchinson did have a 2-yard touchdown run on the following drive to cut Samford's lead back down to 11 with 1:16 to play in the third, but the Mocs punted on their next possession, had a 29-yard field-goal attempt blocked after that and never got the ball back again.

"I was a little surprised how we started, but being a leader, you've got to keep staying positive because everything in football doesn't always go your way," senior offensive lineman McClendon Curtis said. "We had a good week in practice, working hard. Everybody was on their assignment. We've just got to come out a little bit harder."

Hutchinson was 24-of-27 passing for 320 yards and two interceptions. Ailym Ford rushed for 144 yards, giving him 1,097 this season and making him the first player in program history with three 1,000-yard rushing seasons. His 17th career 100-yard game also set a school record, and he now has 12 touchdown runs this season and 32 for his career, second in UTC history.

Sam Phillips, a freshman, had 11 catches for 163 yards, the most yards for a UTC receiver since Bryce Nunnelly had 268 against The Citadel in 2018 and the most catches since Will Young had 13 against East Tennessee State that year.

Devonnsha Maxwell recorded a sack, giving him 36.5 for his career; Davis Tull, whose final season 2014, holds the program and SoCon record with 37. But the UTC defense spent a large portion of the game chasing, also missing out on some key sacks that could have made a difference.

In short, it wasn't enough. And now the Mocs will — for the second year in a row — enter their regular-season finale needing a win to hold on to hope of making the playoffs. Kickoff next Saturday at Western Carolina (5-5, 3-4) is set for 1 p.m.

Contact Gene Henley at Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3.

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