Three weeks after losing opener, Mocs look like a new football team

Staff photo by Olivia Ross / UTC quarterback Chase Artopoeus takes a snap during the Mocs' win against The Citadel on Sept. 16 at Finley Stadium in the SoCon opener for both teams. The Mocs earned their first road win of the season Saturday, defeating reigning SoCon champion Samford in Birmingham, Ala.

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — University of Tennessee at Chattanooga coach Rusty Wright had a simple question for his football team Saturday evening after its resounding 47-24 win at Samford.

"He said we had a good game," junior quarterback Chase Artopoeus said, "but asked how much stuff could we do better.

"I think everybody in there said a lot."

But suddenly, 21 days after there was angst surrounding the program about the season that lied ahead after a disappointing loss in the opener at North Alabama — where UTC managed to both score 27 consecutive points and lose 41-27 — there was optimism about the Mocs, who are now 3-1 overall and 2-0 in the Southern Conference and could find themselves nationally ranked when the new polls come out Monday.

With Saturday's victory at Siebert Stadium, UTC beat the reigning SoCon champion and a team that reached the quarterfinals of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs last fall, and the Bulldogs (1-3, 0-2) were also ranked last week in both FCS polls (17th by coaches, 20th by media).

How has it happened?

Well, it's been a change of philosophy of sorts from previous UTC teams led by Wright, who's in his fifth season as head coach at his alma mater, with this one buoyed more by its offense — and one tilted toward the pass instead of the run at that — than its defense. UTC's defense still ranks in the top half of the SoCon in most categories, but based on their first four games, the Mocs have an offense that can keep them in most matchups.

"We were efficient, we executed, and that's the thing," Wright said Saturday. "That group has a chance to be really good on offense if they'll understand how important execution is. We don't really do a whole lot, we really don't. If we execute, we have an opportunity to be pretty good."

The Mocs are second in the conference in total offense (439 yards per game) and third in passing offense (291.8), and Artopoeus has the second-highest efficiency among SoCon quarterbacks. In the past three games, he's 56-of-70 passing for 799 yards and seven touchdowns with just one interception. The completions have gone to 10 receivers, with sophomore Sam Phillips hauling in 27 passes and junior Jamoi Mayes going over 100 yards in three consecutive games.

"I think we're all becoming synchronized," said Artopoeus, an offseason transfer from UCLA who before this year had not started a game since 2018 in his senior season of high school. "The receivers and I are on the same page; we're not having as many missed assignments between me and them, and I think we feel a lot more comfortable with each other as the weeks go on."

As the Mocs acknowledged to their coach after the latest win, there's obviously room for improvement, too.

The rushing attack, typically the focal point of the offense, has struggled to get going. Veteran running back Ailym Ford is still second in the league in rushing with 327 yards and has three touchdowns after scoring twice Saturday, but he has averaged only 4.2 yards per carry this season, his career worst. Those numbers should improve, based on past success for Ford and fellow senior Gino Appleberry, but as it stands right now, the upside is that the offense has shown it has an added element that may have been missing in years past.

"Coach Wright said from the beginning that we have a long season, 10 games straight," left tackle Griffin McDowell said Saturday. "We're going to have to do really good with putting the soreness aside and focusing on what the outcome needs to be. Tomorrow morning, we're going to be sore and tired. It feels like we played a lot of games, and it helps a bit that we won. We're going to celebrate this for 24 hours, and we've got to focus on the next opponent. That's all that matters."

That next opponent is Wofford (0-4, 0-1), with UTC visiting Spartanburg, South Carolina, for a 6 p.m. kickoff on Saturday. The Mocs have a while until their open date (Nov. 11), meaning six more games in a row to iron out kinks, but there's no doubt they're having fun figuring it out.

The coach who had a simple question for his players Saturday evening also had a simple way of describing their progress.

Said Wright: "We looked like a football team out there."

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