Rusty Wright constantly talks about how hard it is to win football games.
After the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's 27-20 victory last week over Kennesaw State, those were the first words out of his mouth during the postgame news conference.
And that was just one victory for the Mocs and their fifth-year head coach, albeit a solid one because it came against the Owls, who will transition to the Football Bowl Subdivision next season and are 69-23 since their launch in 2015. In fact, they have been more successful than UTC in that time span, with four seasons of at least 10 wins and four appearances in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.
Last week's win at Finley Stadium also showed UTC's ability to bounce back from a disappointing season opener, but now both that 41-27 loss at North Alabama and the victory against Kennesaw State are in the past. And for the Mocs to become the program they want to be and return to the playoffs for the first time since 2016, the next eight weeks of Southern Conference football — starting with a home game against The Citadel at 6 p.m. Saturday — are far more important than anything that happened in the past two.
The Bulldogs are 0-2, having been outscored 90-7 by FBS member Georgia Southern (a former SoCon school) and Campbell to start their first season under coach Maurice Drayton. He's rebuilding a program that hasn't finished a season above .500 since going 10-2 in 2016.
The triple-option offense the Bulldogs have been known for has slowly faded away as cut blocks have been regulated out of the sport for player safety, forcing The Citadel to adjust. The Bulldogs have run the ball 73% of the time this season, which is the lowest that number has been in at least a decade.
Facing an opponent with a new staff and big changes, though, is no reason to assume success — and UTC should know.
North Alabama is in its first season under coach Brent Dearmon, and the Lions brought in 55 new players after going 1-10 last year, but the Mocs' trip to Florence obviously didn't go well. They started the game unfocused, fell behind 21-0, regained focus and outscored the Lions 27-0, then lost focus again and were outscored 20-0 for a 14-point loss.
The Mocs can't afford to have that happen again, and their coach knows it.
"We will have to go play well Saturday at some point in time to go back and get it done," Wright said. "If they can't understand that we've got to prepare and be locked in mentally to handle our job, we'll be chasing down ghosts all night again."
Inconsistency may be the most fitting descriptor of the Mocs under Wright, who is 23-18 with four seasons of at least .500 ball. There have been performances the Mocs could hang their hat on — UTC has at least one victory over a ranked opponent in each of the past three seasons — but there have also been head-scratching defeats. The 2021 season opener against Austin Peay is one example; another is the worst loss of Wright's tenure, in terms of perception and impact, 24-21 at home to the Citadel in the 2021 finale. The Bulldogs' fourth and final win of that season was also the Mocs' fifth and final loss of the season (and third in conference play), and it removed any remaining hope of a playoff berth.
So no, the Mocs can't lose focus again. And they know that.
"We're not going to take them lightly," left tackle Griffin McDowell said of the Bulldogs. "and I think looking back at UNA — new coaching staff, new team, they also had a loss before they played us — and so The Citadel, we know that they're going to come out hungry. They're playing an away game, and every year just in past games, they always come in and play hard.
"The one thing that we've all been focusing on is not relaxing, finishing every play and finishing the game. So one thing we're going to focus on going into this game is just putting the gas pedal down and not letting up. We've got to take the momentum from them and just keep it away from them. That's the goal."
If the Mocs back those words up, winning could suddenly come a bit easier.
Contact Gene Henley at firstname.lastname@example.org.