JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. — Too little, too late.
The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football team came out slowly Saturday night against rival East Tennessee State University. Maybe it was the pressure of their national rankings, maybe it was the loud crowd at William B. Greene Stadium, but by the time the first half ended, the Mocs trailed by three scores.
Some tweaks and adjustments gave the Mocs some life, and they started to move the ball on offense and make stops on defense, but the early mistakes were too much to overcome in the Southern Conference matchup.
The Mocs lost 17-14 to the Buccaneers in front of a crowd of 9,277. The win put ETSU (4-1, 3-0) in sole possession of first place in the SoCon, while UTC fell to 4-1 and 2-1 in the league with Wofford coming to Finley Stadium this weekend.
Over now is UTC's five-game winning streak that dated to last season.
The Mocs — ranked 20th in the STATS FCS Top 25 and 24th by Football Championship Subdivision coaches — finished with 321 yards of total offense against the Bucs, with 233 coming in the second half.
The only first down they had in the first quarter came via a personal-foul penalty on ETSU, and they finished the quarter with only 16 yards of total offense. They had only 84 yards on 34 plays by halftime, and on two occasions ETSU pressure led to sack-fumbles by UTC quarterback Nick Tiano as he attempted to throw. The Bucs recovered both fumbles, with the second negating a drive deep into ETSU territory.
The Bucs' pressure led to passing opportunities downfield, too, but the Mocs were never able to hit on any of the deep throws that had become a staple of their offense.
"That's one thing we have done this year. We've made plays down the field," UTC coach Tom Arth said. "We had to get rid of the ball a little quicker than we'd like to in some of those cases.
"We missed out, and we've got to figure that out and do a better job in pass protection. That's two weeks in a row that we've lost one-on-one (battles). It's nothing schematic, nothing they're doing. We're just not winning one-on-one battles."
The ETSU offense came out clicking, with 135 yards on 19 first-quarter plays. Most of that came on a 54-yard screen pass from former Cleveland High School standout Austin Herink to Quay Holmes that provided the game's first points, but Herink also had a 36-yard completion to Kobe Kelley in the first quarter.
The Bucs took the UTC rushing attack out of the game early to make the Mocs one-dimensional. UTC finished with 49 yards on 27 carries, which led to a season-high 56 passes by Tiano. He completed 32 of those for 272 yards and a touchdown.
Wil Young had 13 catches for 108 yards — both collegiate career highs — Joseph Parker had a collegiate career high with eight catches and totaled 84 yards, and Bryce Nunnelly had eight catches for 67 yards and a 3-yard touchdown reception for the Mocs' first score with 11:00 remaining in the game.
"At the end it was now or never, and we turned it on a little too late," Parker said. "We didn't get it done. We played like we always play in practice — to the best of our ability — in the second half. We've got to learn to play like that in the first half.
"It's weird, because it's usually reverse the whole game. We usually come out firing and struggle to finish it; now we struggled to find that fire early and we finished hard, but it wasn't enough. We've just got to put a complete game together and we'll be all right."
UTC's defense also settled in after the slow start, with the Bucs gaining only 130 yards in the three quarters after their big first. ETSU tacked on a 33-yard field goal by J.J. Jerman with 3:58 to go in the second quarter, but the Mocs shut down the early attack.
Herink, who started his first three seasons with the Bucs, finished with 171 passing yards in his first start this year. Former Marion County High School standout Jacob Saylors had 51 yards to lead the Bucs on the ground, while Holmes had 38 rushing yards and a team-high 61 receiving yards.
"We're still where we need to be," said UTC defensive tackle Derek Mahaffey, who had 10 tackles (three for loss) and a sack and broke up a pass. "Our goals are still in front of us. We lost a game to a very good football team. It's a great learning experience, and we'll answer.
"We'll look back on the past week. Did we prepare well? Did we execute well? Anything we did out of the ordinary, we should go back and correct that for the next week."
The Mocs' Brandon Dowdell had his second interception of the season on the Bucs' second drive of the third quarter, but the offense couldn't respond and Victor Ulmo missed a 42-yard field goal wide left.
Two possessions later, the Mocs finally reached the end zone on a 14-play, 72-yard drive that ate up 5:57. Tiano was 9-for-10 for 80 yards on the series, including a big 31-yard completion to Parker on third-and-18 two plays after being sacked. Three plays later, Tiano found Nunnelly wide open in the back of the end zone for his fifth touchdown reception of the year and Tiano's ninth touchdown pass.
The defense forced a three-and-out, and UTC responded again, this time with a 14-play, 73-yard drive. Tiano had scrambles of 11 and 13 yards, and he had a big completion to Young on a third-and-15 that set the Mocs up a yard away from a first down. Tyrell Price converted with a 2-yard gain, then finished the drive with a 3-yard score for his seventh touchdown of the season.
The Mocs got the ball back at their own 5-yard line with 1:27 remaining and were able to drive to midfield, but the final play was a lateral from Nunnelly that hit the ground, ending the game.
"I thought we got off to a really poor start offensively," Arth said. "We turned the ball over uncharacteristically a number of times and put our defense in tough situations. I thought overall, they (the defense) played well. We gave up some screens early in the game, but we got all that corrected.
"Our offense put our defense in some bad spots, but they buckled down, played great and gave us an opportunity to come back, but we missed out on far too many opportunities to make plays down the field. They played a lot of man-to-man coverage and brought a lot of pressure, but we didn't do a good job of picking it up, and when we did have the opportunity to get it out, we just missed.
"It's a tough feeling to run out of time, but it's an opportunity for us to grow, for us to learn. That's all we can do."
UTC's Marshall Cooper and Devonnsha Maxwell also were credited with sacks Saturday, while Jerrell Lawson and Hawk Schrider combined for one. The Mocs had nine tackles for loss.
Contact Gene Henley at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3.