BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Five plays into Saturday's Southern Conference game at Samford, Ailym Ford lay on the turf at Siebert Stadium, grabbing his knee and writhing in pain. The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga running back was carted off and did not return.
It was another defining moment for first-year head coach Rusty Wright's Mocs, who shook off the possibly demoralizing injury to their star freshman by racing to a 21-point lead in the first half on their way to a 35-27 win.
In his place, graduate transfer senior Elijah Ibitokun-Hanks rushed for 139 yards and two touchdowns on 27 carries, and senior quarterback Nick Tiano had 296 total yards — including a career-high 100 yards on the ground — and three total touchdowns.
"It was one of those games where you have to do whatever it takes to win," Tiano said. "It's next man up. This week, unfortunately, Ailym went down. We've seen injuries all year, and guys have stepped up.
"You can't make up for a player like that because he's so great, but EB (Ibitokun-Hanks) and Jonathan Stovall came in and we were able to do whatever it took to get the win. You never know who that next man is going to be for us, but you do know that we are going to play our tails off all game."
The Mocs (5-5, 4-2) scored on four consecutive first-half possessions and rolled up 356 yards in the first 30 minutes. Tiano's 1-yard sneak capped an 82-yard drive for the first score, and after Samford answered with a 75-yard drive, Tiano's third-down scramble keyed a 70-yard drive that ended with Ibitokun-Hanks' 4-yard run.
The Bulldogs (4-6, 3-4) responded by driving downfield on their next possession, but D.J. Jackson intercepted Chris Oladukon's pass in the end zone, ending the series and sending Samford's starting quarterback to the bench for the rest of the game.
UTC tight end Chris James caught three passes on the ensuing 80-yard scoring drive, with his 1-yard catch on Tiano's pass making it 21-7.
"They like to score points, but our defense kind of shut them out in the first half," UTC safety Brandon Dowdell, who tied linebacker Ty Boeck with a game-high 10 tackles, said of the Bulldogs. "They made some plays, but as a defense we attacked them, made some plays and forced some turnovers. Collectively it was definitely one of our best game plans, and we executed and made it pay off."
The Mocs needed only four plays to stretch their advantage, with Tiano's 31-yard pass to tight end Jay Gibson followed by Ibitokun-Hanks' 34-yard touchdown run.
"We wanted to keep their offense off the field, and that was a good thing we did in the first half," Wright said. "We talked about that at halftime. The growth of this team was the biggest thing I wanted to see in the second half. There was about a three-minute stretch that we didn't handle very well. But we found a way to win a big game on the road."
The Bulldogs used those first three minutes after halftime to score 14 points, aided by a UTC fumble and a short field.
Now up by only eight, the Mocs needed an answer and got it with a 75-yard drive that was kept alive when the Bulldogs were penalized for pass interference on third down. Bryce Nunnelly had a one-handed catch on a third down, and Ibitokun-Hanks a fourth-down conversion and a 1-yard touchdown catch.
"Their offense can strike quick, so we knew right there we needed to put some points on the board and give our defense some cushion," Tiano said. "We felt like we left a couple (scoring opportunities) out there in the second half, but there is always something to learn."
Samford scored to get within eight in the final minute, but the onside kick was recovered by Nunnelly to end the threat as the Mocs won to shake off back-to-back heartbreaking losses.
* "Wheels" Tiano surprised his coach with a 100-yard rushing game, but at least one of his teammates saw it coming.
"I taught Nick everything he knows about running the ball," James said while trying to maintain a straight face. "Seriously, he's a great athlete and I'm not surprised he had 100 yards."
The Mocs piled up 275 rushing yards, led by Ibitokun-Hanks' 139. James knows where the credit belongs.
"It's our O-line," he said. "They are some big hogs up there. They are mean, they finish blocks and it's just fun to play next to them."
* The Mocs were able to regroup after Ford's knee injury. Though they won, most of them were still thinking about their teammate and what the injury meant for his season.
"He's a great kid who works his butt off," James said. "He's a big-time talent, but you've got to have that next-man-up mentality and we've got that. We all hope he gets back soon."
* The Mocs were opportunistic on defense, getting two interceptions and consistently harassing quarterbacks with three sacks and four hurries. UTC had only 11 sacks this season before Saturday.
"We knew coming in here we should be able to do those type of things, and we've got to find a way to get better at those things," Wright said. "It's hard rushing the passer all day. I thought those guys did a good job of keeping that guy in the pocket all day, and we made them bench the starter, so we did something right."