Poor starts have plagued the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football team most of the season. Saturday, in the biggest game of the year for the Mocs, the first quarter and a half against Furman couldn't have been scripted any better.
However, despite taking a 9-0 lead, creating two turnovers and causing Paladins coach Clay Hendrix to bench his starting quarterback, the Mocs' Southern Conference title hopes faded with a 35-20 loss at Finley Stadium.
The latest defeat for the Mocs (4-5, 3-2), coupled with last weekend's overtime setback at Wofford, puts them two games back in the league title race with three games to play. Wofford (5-3, 4-1) hosts Furman (6-3, 5-1) on Nov. 16 in a matchup of the only two SoCon teams currently with fewer than two league losses.
"If you had told me we would have forced two turnovers in the first half and gotten their quarterback out, I would have been thrilled," UTC coach Rusty Wright said. "He (Darren Grainger) is who I was worried about coming in, but they found a way to win. They changed quarterbacks and made enough plays to beat us, which is what good teams do."
Furman backup quarterback Hamp Sisson who, like Grainger, is a redshirt freshman, rallied the Football Championship Subdivision 13th-ranked Paladins from the 9-0 deficit by leading five touchdown drives over the final 2 1/2 quarters. He finished with 99 passing yards and a touchdown throw, and he had another score and 53 rushing yards on just six carries.
"I really think he was making better decisions," UTC linebacker Ty Boeck said of Sisson. "In that offense, that's the key. He wasn't beating us athletically. We just have to tackle better."
Boeck, who led the Mocs in tackles with 13, recovered a Grainger fumble forced by C.J. Winston on Furman's initial drive, setting UTC up at the Furman 44. After gaining one first down on a strong run by freshman phenom Ailym Ford (179 yards on 21 carries) the drive stalled, though Victor Ulmo's 23-yard field goal put the first points on the board.
Moments later, Brandon Dowdell picked off a pass for the fifth time in his UTC career, returning it to the Furman 41. That drive ended at the 11 when Nick Tiano was hit before he could hand off to James Stovall, only the second lost fumble of the season for the Mocs.
"When we look back on this game, the missed opportunities are what's going to hurt the most," said Tiano, who passed for 164 yards and a touchdown and also ran for a touchdown. "The defense gave us two great opportunities and we really needed to put touchdowns on the board there."
Still, after the Mocs put together a lightning-quick drive that covered 79 yards in five plays — ignited by a 40-yard Tiano-to-Kanore McKinnon pass — and scored on Tiano's 3-yard run, their lead grew to 9-0 (the PAT was missed) early in the second quarter.
Sisson, after another unproductive Furman possession ended with a Devonnsha Maxwell sack, entered with 8:09 left in the half and immediately made a difference. On third-and-6 from the UTC 34, he executed a textbook bootleg pass to Devin Abrams to keep the drive alive. Two plays later Abrams (118 yards on 18 carries) scored from a yard out with 2:29 left in the half.
The Mocs, even after a long Ford run moved the ball across midfield, gave the ball back at the 20 with 1:26 to play. Sisson calmly drove the Paladins downfield and capped the stunning drive with 26 seconds left with an 8-yard run. UTC added an Ulmo field goal after another long Ford run got them in position, but the momentum was clearly on the visitors' side.
"We messed that end of the half up," Wright said. "You can't give up a touchdown there. And right before that we missed a touchdown pass wide open in the end zone."
The game further turned midway through the third quarter when Furman's Grayson Atkins unleashed a 64-yard punt that rolled to pin the Mocs at their 2. A dropped deep pass on third down and a short punt set the Paladins up at the UTC 32.
Sisson needed only one play to make the Mocs pay, hitting a streaking Ryan Miller off a play-action fake to increase the lead to 21-12.
A fourth-quarter Furman touchdown drive increased the lead to 16, but the Mocs rallied with 6:02 to play when Tiano hit tight end Chris James for a short touchdown and a 2-point conversion. UTC never touched the ball again, though, as Furman ran the ball straight at the Mocs to end it, scoring a touchdown with just seconds to play.
"We didn't tackle very well, and they had a lot to do with that," Wright said. "They blocked us and Devin Wynn is a good back. But that was just embarrassing there in the second half. I don't think I've ever seen anything like that. To let them finish off the rest of the ballgame was embarrassing."
The Mocs return to action next Saturday with a 3 p.m. game at Samford.
* The Mocs, after amassing 233 yards in the first half, were held to just 62 in the third quarter. Ford, who had 145 yards on 15 first-half carries, was limited to four carries and 12 yards in the period.
"They made some good adjustments and honed in on the run in the second half," Tiano said. "We just couldn't get that spark and get a drive going in the third quarter."
* Ford eclipsed the 1,000-yard rushing mark in the first half and ended the game with 1,072 yards, the ninth-most for any UTC back in a season. He passed Jacob Huesman, Gwain Durden and James Roberts to move into second all-time among UTC freshman rushers, trailing only Mike Smith's mark of 1,090 set in 1977.
* The UTC special teams were outplayed again. Even the Mocs' punting unit, which came in as one of the best in the FCS, averaged just 31.6 yards on five punts. Place-kicker Victor Ulmo also missed a PAT, and Wright elected not to try for what could have been a go-ahead 44-yard field goal in the second half.
* Third-down conversions were crucial to Furman's success. The Paladins converted on seven of 15 attempts, while the Mocs, after a 2-of-3 start, managed to convert just two of 10 tries the rest of the way.
"They made them all day, but in the second half we didn't," Wright said. "We couldn't get going offensively, weren't consistent all day."
* Facing an option team for the second time in two weeks, the Mocs believed they had a good defensive game plan in place. The difference on Saturday, leading tackler Boeck believes, was that the Paladins' versatility made it tough to sustain a good defensive start.
"They do so much offensively that you are really limited to just your base defense, and that's tough," he said. "You want to use all your tools, but they limit that with what they do offensively. We were in position to make a lot of plays, but we didn't. That's on us, not the coaches. I missed tackles and that's not OK."