It wasn't long after Nick Tiano's final pass hit the Gibbs Stadium turf, sealing the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's 35-34 overtime loss at Wofford last Saturday, that small packs of players started talking outside the visiting locker room.
There were few smiles to be seen on the faces of the Mocs or the families, friends and fans who tried to console them, but this wasn't the same UTC team that left the field after losses to Tennessee or James Madison. The Mocs believed they should have defeated Wofford, and they weren't happy about it.
As 13th-ranked Furman visits Finley Stadium on Saturday for a 2 p.m. kickoff to what will essentially serve as an elimination game in the Southern Conference championship hunt, expectations have most definitely changed for head coach Rusty Wright's team.
The Mocs (4-4, 3-1), though, believe they still have a lot to prove to change everyone else's expectations, with the game against the Paladins (5-3, 4-1) providing another opportunity to do so.
"It doesn't tell them much," responded freshman running back Ailym Ford when asked if the narrow loss to Wofford would send a message to other SoCon teams. "Teams in this conference haven't had much respect for us, but when we play them they find out we'll hit them in the mouth. It's the only way to earn it."
Ideally, UTC would have a lesser opponent after such a tough loss, but if there was a hangover, Wright said he didn't see it this week in practice.
"Furman doesn't care if we just lost on the road in overtime," he said. "They are coming in here to win a football game, and we have to be ready. From what I've seen so far this week, I think we'll be OK."
The biggest challenge will be, as it was against Wofford, getting the Furman offense off the field. If allowed to do so, the Paladins will consume the game clock with long, ground-oriented drives and force the Mocs to match them. And, like last week, small details could make the biggest difference in stopping them.
"The defense played well at Wofford," Wright said. "They had the ball 35 minutes, so it's hard. We weren't perfect, and that's the difference in those guys and us. On fourth-and-10 our guy wasn't lined up where he was supposed to be and we gave up an easy completion. He was in the right spot on third down and the pass was incomplete.
"Those are the types of things we have to learn from. We are in the right spots more, but we're not there consistently. That's the difference between teams like Wofford and Furman and us. They are consistently in the right places."
The danger is letting a team that has averaged nearly 300 rushing yards per game become comfortable. Furman junior Devin Wynn has rushed for 807 yards and eight touchdowns, and he sports a gaudy average of 7.5 yards per carry. The biggest difference between the offenses of Furman and Wofford is the Paladins have a more dangerous deep passing game with receiver Thomas Gordon, who has 503 yards (at more than 17 yards per reception) and five touchdowns this season.
It's a challenge the Mocs know they can't meet just some of the time.
"Honestly, Furman is tougher to defend than Wofford because they can do it all," said UTC sophomore linebacker Ty Boeck, who leads the Mocs with 64 tackles. "They can run it, pass it and they have all the tricks. We can't have busts or they will make us pay."