UTC visits Samford with chance to strengthen SoCon lead, prove road readiness

Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Samford quarterback Michael Hiers protects the football as he tries to get away from UTC's Devonnsha Maxwell during a SoCon game last November at Finley Stadium. Hiers passed for 353 yards that day to lead the Bulldogs to a 35-24 win, and the visitors celebrated on the Mocs' field after clinching a share of the conference title.
Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Samford quarterback Michael Hiers protects the football as he tries to get away from UTC's Devonnsha Maxwell during a SoCon game last November at Finley Stadium. Hiers passed for 353 yards that day to lead the Bulldogs to a 35-24 win, and the visitors celebrated on the Mocs' field after clinching a share of the conference title.

There's no doubt that two recent bad memories for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football program will intersect Saturday in Alabama.

Positively thinking, the Mocs also will have the chance to kill two birds with one stone when they face Samford at 3 p.m. Eastern at Siebert Stadium in Birmingham.

It was just last November when the Bulldogs walked up and down the field in a 35-24 win at Finley Stadium, which gave the visitors a share of the Southern Conference championship (they beat Mercer in double overtime a week later and won the league title outright for the first time), and the Mocs watched as another team celebrated on their own field.

"It hurt to see that, but they beat us, so there was nothing we could do about it," sophomore receiver Javin Whatley said. "We'd do the same thing."

The way the Bulldogs moved the ball that day, they could have laid some claim to the Mocs' home field. No opponent has thrown for more yards (353) against UTC under fifth-year head coach Rusty Wright than Samford quarterback Michael Hiers had in that win.

"They went up and down the field at will, and that's not what we've done against them traditionally," defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward noted. "Two years ago, they went to Florida and cut them up and couldn't score against us, so we've got get our fire back and just do what the defense calls for, and I think we'll be fine."

To Ward's point, the 2021 Bulldogs scored 52 points in a November loss to the Gators and averaged 40.4 points in the 10 games not against UTC that season, but they could manage only 13 points and 200 yards when the Mocs dominated in a 55-13 win that October in Birmingham.

But those two games against Samford, the win and the loss, were played by past UTC teams, and the current Mocs — talented but less experienced than perhaps any other group under Wright — have their own demon to exorcise.

That's where the second recent bad memory comes into play.

The trip to Samford (2-1, 0-1) will be the first chance for the 2023 Mocs (2-1, 1-0) to prove themselves in a road game since playing inconsistently in a season-opening 41-27 loss at North Alabama. The pendulum could not have swung more either way in terms of momentum, as the Mocs started horribly and ended horribly.

"Against North Alabama, we struggled a little bit with missed assignments, but over these past few games, I think we've really locked in and done what we've had to do on defense with our assignments," sophomore linebacker Alex Mitchell said. "We just have to prepare for what they do on offense compared to the past two teams, who ran the option. They like to spread the ball out more, so I think once we get used to that, we'll be fine."

The UTC offense has been hot since the loss, averaging more than 7 yards per play in home wins over Kennesaw State, 27-20 on Sept. 9, and The Citadel, 48-3 last weekend. The latter victory has the Mocs atop the SoCon standings alongside Western Carolina (2-1, 1-0), which is playing a nonconference game this week. The Catamounts won 30-7 two weeks ago against Samford, which is coming off a 45-13 loss at Auburn and seeking its first win since beating Division II program Shorter 69-14 on Aug. 31.

The Bulldogs appear in both Football Championship Subdivision polls this week, ranked 17th by coaches and 20th by media.

The UTC defense has also shown improvement, but the players and coaches think there's another level this team can attain, and the Mocs know they will be tested by a Samford team averaging 299 passing yards per game. That's one reason Wright is more focused on this week than what might have happened between past editions of the Mocs and the Bulldogs.

"I think they hope they can be better than what we've been," Wright said of the UTC defense. "That's the hope, that's the main goal, because they're different and we're different — we've got different guys in different spots. Half of the guys we've got playing now didn't play a bunch of snaps against these guys last year, and same thing for them.

"I just hope we can figure out a way to play in this game and get better and then continue to get better, and that's all we've talked about since before last week, figuring out a way to get better every week, and if we do that, we'll be fine."

Contact Gene Henley at ghenley@timesfreepress.com.

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