As the door swung open to the home locker room at Finley Stadium on a crisp Saturday evening in mid-November, Rusty Wright was met by the greatest sight a football coach can see after a game.
The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's first-year head coach was greeted by pure mayhem, and as he is wont to do, quickly joined in the celebration after the Mocs' wild 34-33 comeback win over The Citadel.
Senior quarterback Nick Tiano's 12-yard touchdown run with 28 seconds remaining and junior kicker's Victor Ulmo's pivotal extra point capped a rally in which UTC (6-5, 5-2 Southern Conference) scored two touchdowns in the final seven minutes and made a pair of defensive stops to keep its hope for a victory alive.
As a result, UTC can tie Wofford (7-3, 6-1) and Furman (7-4, 6-2) for the SoCon title with a win next weekend at Virginia Military Institute if Wofford also loses at The Citadel (6-6, 4-3). Wofford beat Furman 21-7 on Saturday.
None of that mattered as Wright leaped into the waiting arms of a group of players — riding on top of a mosh pit of emotion — and the team erupted in the locker room. It was a moment that brought the usually stern coach to an emotional crest afterward, another highlight to a season in which the Mocs have overcome injuries to be one of the league's top teams.
"I don't have many, but the ones I have will go out and play, you know," said Wright, a former UTC player and assistant. "It's fun to be down there. I can't describe what the looks on those faces were like. That's why you do this. It doesn't have anything to do with winning or losing. Them dudes were so excited in that locker room. They got it done."
Getting it done was difficult against the clock-eating Bulldogs' triple-option-oriented offense. UTC's 12-2 advantage established near the end of the first quarter was consumed by the visitors, who had the ball for 40 of the game's 60 minutes. The Bulldogs, who outgained UTC in total yards 499-416, turned their 12-9 halftime deficit turn into a 26-12 lead entering the final quarter.
The Mocs helped The Citadel rally by turning the ball over on their first two possessions after halftime — an interception off a pass that hit a receiver's hands and a Tiano fumble. The Citadel capitalized on both, with quarterback Brandon Rainey scoring on an 8-yard keeper on the first and hitting Rayleigh Webb for a 40-yard touchdown pass on the second.
All of this took less than three minutes and confirmed Wright's worst fears.
"Against a team like that, I was sweating it," he said of the first half. "They had the ball for all but five minutes of the first half, so I was really concerned coming out of halftime. That's why I was hoping we would do something with that first possession and get some points, but we turned it over on the second or third play."
The Citadel's lead was 33-27 midway through the fourth quarter when UTC's defense made the first of two crucial stands. The Mocs took over possession at their 12 with 5:07 left and drove to the Bulldogs' 11 before turning the ball over on downs, seemingly ending the comeback hopes.
However, the Mocs then forced The Citadel to go three-and-out, with free safety D.J. Jackson making a critical stop on third down to give his offensive teammates one more shot.
"I had been reading my keys," Jackson said of the key play. "The A-back came back to my side and allowed me to trigger on that play. It was a special moment to give our offense an opportunity to get the ball again. There's nothing like having your teammates' backs when they are down."
The Mocs took over at their 27 and got the first of two breaks. A Tiano scramble and a facemask penalty against the Bulldogs moved the ball to midfield, but the Mocs faced fourth-and-10 when Tiano lofted a long pass toward Kanore McKinnon down the left sideline. The lanky UTC receiver was interfered with on the play, and the penalty gave the Mocs new life at the Bulldogs' 35.
Tiano hit Tyrin Summers for 15 yards and then Juwan Tyus for 8 to the 12 before making his scramble that took him to the end zone. The big moment came in the Mocs' home finale and on senior day.
"I dropped back and didn't see anything I really liked," recalled the Baylor School graduate, who began his collegiate career at Mississippi State before transferring back home. "The middle kind of opened, and I ran to get what I could get and thankfully I was able to take it home.
"It's unforgettable. I love these guys, this team, this school and this program. It's been an amazing career, and I couldn't imagine a better way to go out at home."
* UTC tight end Chris James will return for a sixth season of eligibility in 2020 after the NCAA approved his application Saturday. The former quarterback from Gilmer High School in Ellijay, Georgia, entered the game with a team-leading five touchdown catches this season and added two receptions for 19 yards.
* Wright has been hard on Tiano at times, but the appreciation he has for his quarterback was clear after Saturday's win. Tiano, after a rough 5-for-14 start passing, finished with 11 completions for 268 yards and two touchdowns while adding 31 rushing yards (54 before sack losses) and the touchdown run.
"His first pass of the second half hits a guy in the hands and it's intercepted," Wright said. "I bet five of his 10 interceptions have hit somebody in the hands. Literally in the hands. But as bad as things were — and they did some things defensively we hadn't seen, and we had to move some people around — he just sat in there and kept battling.
"He's a good player and gives you an opportunity to win. He didn't get rattled; he just kept playing."
* Marshall Cooper from Hixson had a home finale to remember, leading the Mocs with 13 tackles and a sense of accomplishment regarding what his final UTC team has accomplished — and what it still might have ahead of it this year.
"It's great," Cooper said of the possibility of tying for the SoCon's top record. "We're going to take VMI very seriously next week. We need that last win to improve our record. Seven will be better than six, and we'll roll the dice and see what our playoff chances are. I think we have a decent chance to make it to that tournament."