Rusty Wright called the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's 41-27 loss at North Alabama last Saturday "one of the strangest games" he has been a part of.
The opener to Wright's fifth season as UTC's head coach essentially became three games in one; unfortunately for the Mocs, they lost two of them. In a game of runs, the Lions jumped out to a 21-0 advantage, only for UTC to reel off 27 consecutive points and take the lead before the Lions scored the final 20.
Wright believes it wasn't as simple as the Lions, who were coming off a season-opening loss to Mercer, just being better than the Mocs. Had that been the case, UTC's midgame rally wouldn't have happened. There were enough mental lapses by the Mocs to add up to a 14-point loss, but those mistakes also give them reason for optimism heading into their home opener as Kennesaw State (1-0) visits Finley Stadium at 6 p.m. Saturday.
If the Mocs are the team that scored 27 consecutive points, they'll have a chance to be really good this year. If they're the team that allowed the Lions to take control at the beginning and the end, UTC is in for more frustration.
"The room for improvement is tremendous," Wright said. "If Saturday was a physical thing, I can handle that. If the guy across from him lined up and whipped him all night, I could handle that, but when we didn't do our part to give ourselves a chance to be successful, then we've got nowhere to go but to fix it, and then we'll see. At the end of the day, they have to take it personal upon themselves to get it fixed and get it right, and I think this group does, I really do. I mean, they don't back down, and I truly mean it; it was 21-0 and could have been 42-0 at halftime.
"But there's something to these kids. We have to grab the good, and we've got to fix the things that we can fix. After that, we can't worry about it. We've got to fix things we can fix and go, and I think this group will."
Edge rusher Ben Brewton, who had a sack and two tackles for loss, said the Mocs need to "start and finish."
"Last week we started a little slow, so we were playing catchup, and it kind of hurt us trying to play catchup the whole time," he said.
Offensive coordinator Joe Pizzo took the blame for the slow first quarter by junior quarterback Chase Artopoeus, who was 2-of-7 passing for 21 yards in the opening period but totaled 311 yards. The Mocs were playing the game "close to the vest" as Artopoeus, who spent the past four seasons at UCLA, made his first start since Nov. 2, 2018 -- when he was a senior at Saint Joseph's High School in California and passed for 359 yards in a state playoff game.
UTC's offense seemed to go as Artopoeus went. He completed 35% of his passes in the first and fourth quarters for 55 yards combined, and the Mocs were outscored 41-7. In the second and third quarters, he was 15-for-26 for 256 yards and two scores while also setting up Gino Appleberry's touchdown run on the first play of the fourth quarter.
Trailing 41-27 with 6:17 to go, the Mocs put together a drive of four-plus minutes, going from their 25-yard line to the North Alabama 13. Then, on fourth-and-4, Artopoeus was stopped a yard short of the first-down marker.
"I've just got to take the leash off and let him roll. When I did, he played really well," Pizzo said. "We just have to finish the game, and that's the mentality, that's what we're teaching our guys. We had an opportunity to put that game away and we didn't do it. We had an opportunity to get down there and tie the game, and we didn't. I don't put anything on the kids, but we muffle the fourth-down play, never got the call off. It's a pressure situation and hard to create and practice.
"We just have to keep pushing."
Defensively, it was the same stuff. The Lions held the ball for only 5:35 in the fourth quarter but scored 20 points on just 13 plays, putting the game away on an 81-yard run by Jalyn Daniels with a minute to go. They had 385 yards in the first and fourth quarters but just 132 in the middle periods.
"It's more being more disciplined than consistent," UTC defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward said. "We want to do our thing consistently, but we've got to be disciplined doing our assignment and not try to do too much. When things starting going bad, everybody wanted to fix it, but they've just got to do their job. When we settled down and did our job, we played well, and then we went back, reverted back to it in the fourth quarter, which is mind-boggling."
Contact Gene Henley at email@example.com.