UTC’s big rally wasted in season-opening loss at North Alabama

UTC Athletics photo by Laura O'Dell / UTC running back Gino Appleberry's touchdown run early in the fourth quarter of Saturday night's season opener at North Alabama put the Mocs ahead, but their lead wouldn't last as the Lions closed the game with a 20-point surge.
UTC Athletics photo by Laura O'Dell / UTC running back Gino Appleberry's touchdown run early in the fourth quarter of Saturday night's season opener at North Alabama put the Mocs ahead, but their lead wouldn't last as the Lions closed the game with a 20-point surge.

FLORENCE, Ala. — Somehow, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football team pried defeat from the jaws of victory in the same game in which it had earlier seemingly pried victory from the jaws of defeat.

UTC had yet to score and was down by three touchdowns a minute into the second quarter of its season opener against North Alabama on Saturday night, only to reel off 27 straight points and take a six-point lead at the start of the fourth. The Lions then responded with 20 unanswered points and pulled off a 41-27 victory in front of 9,361 at Braly Stadium, bouncing back from a season-opening loss a week earlier to Mercer.

“Inconsistent” was a word constantly used by Mocs coach Rusty Wright afterward, when he harped on two blown coverages by a UTC defense expected to be the team's strength this season. North Alabama quarterback Noah Walters threw for 271 yards and four touchdowns, with 172 yards and three scores coming from receiver Takairee Kenebrew, and the Lions finished with 517 yards of offense.

“We didn’t do anything right,” Wright said. “We turned the ball over in the red zone, didn’t run the right route sometimes, didn’t fit the right gap sometimes. It falls on me. We didn’t do things we’ve been doing up to this point. You give those guys credit; I’m not going to take anything away from them. They played like they played a game already, and we played like we have not at all.”

The Lions built their 21-0 lead on the trio of touchdown passes from Walter to Kenebrew.

“I knew it was going to take us a minute to get up," Wright said. "It’s different when both teams are playing the first game. They already had it going, and I knew it was going to take a minute. We didn’t get anything going early on both sides of the ball.”

The UTC offense was plagued by drops in the passing game and inconsistency in the running game.

UCLA transfer quarterback Chase Artopoeus threw for 311 yards and a pair of touchdowns in his first college start, but he completed just 22 of 46 passes. While the official stats counted just two drops, it felt like a few more, and on the ground, neither Ailym Ford (90 yards on 24 carries) nor Gino Appleberry (48 yards on 11 carries, including a touchdown) were able to consistently find gaps. When the running backs did, the Mocs were able to have a balanced attack, which allowed them to rally.

  photo  UTC Athletics photo by Laura O'Dell / Chase Artopoeus made his UTC debut in Saturday night's season opener at North Alabama, where the UCLA transfer quarterback was 22-of-46 passing for 311 yards with two touchdowns and an interception.
 
 

Javin Whatley finished with 106 receiving yards and Jamoi Mayes had 75 toward the Mocs' total of 488 yards off ofense, which didn’t translate into as many points as it should have. After Appleberry’s 2-yard touchdown run two seconds into the fourth quarter made it 27-21, the Mocs were unable to score again.

Jude Kelley missed a 53-yard field-goal attempt that would have put the Mocs up 30-21, and the Lions answered by going 64 yards on three plays to tie the game. They took the lead on Walters’ fourth touchdown pass, this one to Dakota Warfield, and put the game away when Jalyn Daniels shook off a tackle and raced 81 yards for a score with a minute to play.

“I do think we had a good 30 minutes there, and I think that we have to start to improve our consistency,” said Artopoeus, the first Moc to throw for more than 300 yards in his first career start since Cole Copeland against Furman in 2017. “That starts with me leading the offense. I’ve got to be more consistent for us.

“I think that practicing some more and playing in this game will help us be able to correct those mistakes and come back out and be a better team.”

The season continues for the Mocs with their home opener as Kennesaw State (1-0) visits Finley Stadium next Saturday for a 6 p.m. kickoff.

UTC struggled on special teams, with Kelley also missing a 48-yard attempt and Crile Clayton averaging 35.8 net yards on five punts.

“We came out slow,” senior edge rusher Jay Person said. “We just weren’t ready. There’s no better way of saying it. They came out and they wanted it more than us. That’s all it was.”

Contact Gene Henley at ghenley@timesfreepress.com.

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