Samford (2-1, 1-0 SoCon) at UTC (1-2, 0-0)
Saturday, 7 p.m.
The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football program has been vastly improved since Russ Huesman took over five years ago, speeding through winning seasons four times and a share of the Southern Conference championship in 2013.
The one speed bump that has prevented them from earning a playoff berth has been the failure to win close games. UTC has lost 10 straight games decided by three points or less, including last year's 17-14 overtime defeat at Samford that cost the Mocs the outright league title and the automatic playoff bid that comes with it.
"I'm going to put it on everybody," Huesman said this week. "As coaches we have to make sure we're putting our guys in the best positions to be successful in tight games. Once we put you in position, now go make a play. It's been all of us -- a collective group. We may not have called the best things, we may not have made a play when we had the opportunity, but it's all of us, coaches and players."
It's been a frustrating hodgepodge of poor offensive execution, defensive lapses, special-teams mishaps, untimely penalties and fateful coaching calls that has led to UTC's inability to close out close games.
Two losses by a combined five points last year prevented the Mocs from having a 10-win season and earning their first playoff appearance since 1984. UTC had a potential game-clinching touchdown called back by a questionable fourth-quarter penalty in what became a two-point loss at Georgia Southern, and later in the season, after rallying from a 14-point deficit to force overtime at Samford, a potential winning touchdown pass spiraled just inches from the outstretched fingertips of Taharin Tyson. One play later the Mocs missed a chip-shot field goal, allowing Bulldogs students to storm the field in celebration.
"Absolutely we're aware of the streak," Tyson said. "It's definitely in the back of our minds as one of those things like 'Here we go again' whenever it's late and the game is close. As one of the leaders of this team, I should be able to talk to the guys about staying calm in those situations.
"It shows we're a good team, but at the same time it shows we haven't finished the way we should. That's something we've really been working on."
As the conference schedule begins, players and coaches are aware of the importance of redirecting the outcome of close games in their favor. Nearly 45 percent of SoCon contests last year were decided by one possession, and should the Mocs reach the playoffs, most of those games also come down to the final minutes.
By comparison, over the same five-year stretch, Samford is 5-5 in games decided by three points or less.
"You have to execute, but a lot of it is mental, too," Tyson added. "We have to learn to close the thing out, and that's all from mental focus and attention to detail. Experience of doing it gives you confidence that you'll find a way to get it done late."
During Huesman's first season (2009), UTC won three one-possession games, including a three-point win over The Citadel in mid-November. That was the program's last victory in a game that close.
The next season the Mocs suffered a pair of losses by a combined five points, then followed that with perhaps the most frustrating stretch of the Huesman era. In 2011, the only year the Mocs failed to finish with a winning record under Huesman, they lost five games by a total of 12 points -- three by 28-27 margins as well as a two-point loss at Appalachian State and a seven-point defeat to Furman. The 2012 season was cut short of reaching the playoffs because of two overtime losses and a three-point loss in regulation.
In UTC's 100 games before Huesman arrived, the Mocs went 26-74 and kept only 17 of those losses within one possession. The rest were by more than 17 points.
With the current staff's ability to recruit better talent into the program and an upgrade in coaching those players, UTC has proven it can compete against top-tier FCS programs. The next step is to begin delivering the gut-punch defeats instead of being on the receiving end of heartbreaking losses.
"It's on us to do the small things early and throughout the game, because those can become big plays that will put us in position to win close games," said senior defensive end Zach Rayl. "We have to be confident and believe we can win in those situations. That's something we're still building right now."
Contact Stephen Hargis at email@example.com or 423-757-6293.