Threat of UTC running backs opens up passing game for Mocs

Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / UTC senior running back Gino Appleberry tries to evade Kennesaw State's Pooda Walker last Saturday night at Finley Stadium. The Owls held Appleberry to 16 rushing yards on six carries and the team to 123 on 31, but with UTC's passing game in full swing, the Mocs won 27-20.
Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / UTC senior running back Gino Appleberry tries to evade Kennesaw State's Pooda Walker last Saturday night at Finley Stadium. The Owls held Appleberry to 16 rushing yards on six carries and the team to 123 on 31, but with UTC's passing game in full swing, the Mocs won 27-20.

Ailym Ford knows his yards will eventually come.

Currently 76 yards from moving into second place on the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's list of career rushing leaders, Ford always finds a way to get his ground gains, sooner or later.

But defenses know that as well, and early in the 2023 season, UTC's offense has seen a lot of stacked boxes. Opponents have decided to force UTC to beat them with the pass, and the Mocs got it done consistently against Kennesaw State in a 27-20 victory last Saturday night at Finley Stadium — and for two quarters, they did the same the week before that in their season opener at North Alabama, a 41-27 loss.

Eventually, defenses will have to play UTC honest. And that's when Ford, fellow senior running back Gino Appleberry and the rushing attack will be more successful.

"I just look at this as an opportunity to get better, work on my pass protection, work on my routes and help my team win games," said Ford, who has 148 rushing yards on 41 carries this year for a 3.6 average. "It doesn't matter how many yards I get as long as we win."

With the defenses paying extra attention to the running game, junior quarterback Chase Artopoeus has thrived early in his first season with the Mocs, completing 61% of his passes for 587 yards and five touchdowns. Both of his interceptions were on passes that were tipped: one by a defender and one that went through the hands of sophomore tight end Camden Overton.

Artopoeus has also shown he could be a threat with his legs. Kennesaw State blitzed on a number of occasions, and when the UCLA transfer wasn't getting the ball to his receivers, he was evading the pressure for 50 yards, which doesn't include a 45-yard run called back due to a holding penalty. The 6-foot-2, 208-pound quarterback is second on the team in rushing with 90 yards this season.

"I think Chase makes us more dangerous, and it makes defenses kind of have to game plan around Chase because he can make a play," senior left tackle Griffin McDowell said. "Whether he's going to run the ball, he's going to throw the ball, and then you add in the run game, and I think it makes defenses have to kind of really focus on what they're going to have to do to stop us."

The Mocs have averaged 150 rushing yards per game and 4.1 yards per carry so far this season, pedestrian numbers at best for an offense that prides itself on trying to be balanced. However, both McDowell and Mocs coach Rusty Wright pointed out that while the offensive line has three new starters, there have been a number of carries where a running back has been within inches of breaking a long gain that could get the attack back on track.

"We're going to figure out a way to run the football," Wright said. "I think we've got to do a few things better up front. I think they played better Saturday against a better group, and I think they will continue to do that. We probably overcoached them on some things, but I think it's coming. I really do. I think we're close to having a game where we go: 'Screw it. Just keep on handing it off.'"

Added McDowell, an offseason transfer from Florida: "It's good because we're able to recognize that, but it's also frustrating because we have so much more potential. We have running backs that can go out there and make plays; you saw them in the last game. We definitely want to make guys like Ailym's job easier and do our job across the line."

The Mocs begin their Southern Conference schedule when The Citadel (0-2) visits Finley Stadium at 6 p.m. Saturday. It's the start of eight league games in as many weeks for UTC, and there will be plenty of chances for the Mocs to continue to grow.

Offenses usually have to adapt during the season as defenses get more game video of the current team, allowing them the opportunity for more study and better preparation. If the adjustment going forward has to be playing UTC more honestly because of the effectiveness of Artopoeus, that wouldn't be a bad thing.

But don't expect Ford to be demanding anything along the way.

"It's been a lot of fun this year," Ford said. "I've watched these receivers grow up, and they're finally getting their turn to shine. I'm mostly excited about seeing my team win and execute because they've worked so hard in the offseason, and watching 9 (Artopoeus) develop more and more in this offense.

"It's just been a lot of fun."

Contact Gene Henley at ghenley@timesfreepress.com.

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