Rusty Wright got his answer.
The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football coach was understandably concerned with how his team would react in practice this week after a second consecutive loss knocked it out of straightforward — and realistic — contention for the Southern Conference title.
With three games remaining on the schedule for the Mocs (4-5, 3-2) beginning with Saturday's 3 p.m. EST kickoff at Samford (4-5, 3-3), Wright tested his team early at Scrappy Moore Field and found out what he needed to know.
"We've had good practices," he said. "We changed some things up and let them go against each other more so we can keep up with the speed of what we'll see Saturday. It's important at this time of the year with us being beaten and banged up. We started going hard again, and I was impressed with how they came out and attacked it."
The Mocs have a small class of seniors. Seven of them will start at Samford — quarterback Nick Tiano, lineman Malcolm White and tight end Chris James on offense and linemen Khayyan Edwards and Telvin Jones and linebacker Marshall Cooper on defense as well as punter Colin Brewer — with four listed as top reserves.
The team has also lost seniors Harrison Moon, Tyrell Price and Elijah Ibitokun-Hanks (who may return) to injury. The group may be small in numbers, but as Wright has discovered, the seniors still carry a lot of weight.
"They set the standard in how we do things," he said. "They are the first team I'm with. It's like I told them, 'Five sounds a whole lot better than four (wins).' It could go one or two ways real quick, but I don't think that will happen with this group because they have enough about them to do the right things. I think they will give themselves an opportunity to finish this season the right way."
Tiano admits the back-to-back losses have been difficult to shake, but he's seen nothing this week to suggest the disappointment will linger into the game against the Bulldogs, who are coming off a triple-overtime defeat at Mercer and have lost three of their past four.
"I've been really proud of the way the team has responded," the quarterback said. "Guys came in ready to work. Yesterday and today we had great, physical, intense practices. You can't beat that — guys showing up to work like that after two tough losses. It says a lot about those guys in the locker room."
To get that fifth win, a banged-up defense will have to endure the up-tempo, pass-happy Samford offense and find a way to finish strong. Junior safety Brandon Dowdell believes his group, which will play without starting free safety Jerrell Lawson due to injury, is up for the challenge.
"The last two weeks we've had to go up against the triple option, which was tough, but this week against Samford they will test us a different way," said Dowdell, whose interception against Furman last week was the fifth of his UTC career.
"That's a great group of guys over there, so it will be a tremendous challenge for the DBs. But I think we can get a few turnovers against them. They seem a little careless with the ball at times, and we have a great game plan for them. We're just going out there to compete and see how it goes."