Entering the fourth quarter of Saturday's 30-10 loss to Mercer, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga senior receiver Alphonso Stewart walked up and down the sideline, offering words of encouragement to every player — offense and defense.
This trying season for the Mocs has been especially so for the seniors.
The fifth-year guys had been parts of teams that won 36 games during their careers; the fourth-year seniors, 28. So the precipitous fall for the program, which has lost nine of its last 11 games dating back to last year and is 1-6 in 2017 heading into this Saturday's game against The Citadel, has been a tough one for all.
Yet Stewart and the other captains — injured quarterback Alejandro Bennifield, receiver James Stovall, defensive end Taylor Reynolds and safety Lucas Webb — have tried to remain positive. Stewart's sideline encouragement in the 20-point loss was an example of that.
"I was just telling guys to keep their head up," Stewart said. "We're always playing for something bigger than ourselves, so we have to continue to fight, play for the team and go out and give everything you have on every play. It's tough, but when something's tough, it don't mean you don't do it.facebook
"It's a message that needs to be conveyed. It's hard, but it's the right thing to do."
Coach Tom Arth has taken responsibility for the program's worst start since 2008, but Saturday he likewise encouraged the Mocs to keep pushing hard with hopes that eventually things would fall their way. But players have, in a sense, decided to take their share of ownership for how the season has gone in hopes of turning it around.
With the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs out of the picture, simply finishing on a high note becomes more important. It will be up to the players how this season ends.
"We want to be the guys that can be looked to, but when things are going this way, we put it on ourselves," Webb said. "This is our team, and guys are looking for the leadership and direction on having a foundation and staying grounded even when things get tough.
"I think that's important, and we can do better in that part."
Stewart said it's times like these that show exactly who is a leader and who just wants to be. It wasn't long after his gesture that the Mocs scored to close the gap to 23-10, and after a failed onside kick the defense forced a Mercer three-and-out. But the Bears' punt was downed at the 1, and after the Mocs weren't able to move the ball, Mercer put the game away with a 6-yard scoring run on the first play of its next possession.
"You have to be able to convince people you're still in it. We're fighting for something bigger than ourselves," Stewart said. "We have to have people motivating and trying to keep everything together, because if you don't, you wouldn't see no fight in the game."
The seniors have stepped up in that regard, which in turn has made underclassmen want to lend a voice where needed as well.
"I personally need to step up, become a vocal leader and get the program headed back in the right direction, where it needs to be," junior tight end Bailey Lenoir said. "It's not a fix; it's just that everybody needs to do their job to the best of their ability and everything will turn out as it should."
Lenoir entered the Mercer game with seven career pass receptions for 47 yards. He nearly doubled that against the Bears.
The six catches for 56 yards easily set career highs for the 6-foot-4, 245-pound junior from East Hamilton. Included was a 21-yard reception, which tied a career high and set up a Darrell Bridges touchdown run that closed the margin to 23-10 in the fourth quarter.
"The offense needed to start taking some shots because we were down and needed to make something happen," Lenoir said. "The O-line stuck their face in there and did a good job protecting our true freshman (quarterback Cole Copeland), and Cole did a good job putting the ball where it needed to be and made it easier for me."
Early in the game, the Mocs were able to have success getting the ball to the receivers on comeback routes. As the game wore on, the Bears took that away, which left Lenoir open in the seams to make plays. Once Copeland missed Lenoir on a play that could have been a touchdown.
"Bailey did a good job of getting vertical and getting width away from the safety," Arth said. "That's how we want to play; tight ends have to be a factor for us in the middle of the field. Bailey is someone with a lot of ability, a lot of talent, and we've just got to continue to push him and get more and more out of him, because I think he can be an excellent player for us."
Contact Gene Henley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @genehenleytfp.