If there is a single play that might exemplify the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football team this season, it came late in the third quarter of Saturday's 34-33 win over The Citadel.
At the time, it appeared to be a rather nondescript moment in a game seemingly about to get away from the Mocs, but it ultimately helped give them a chance to rally.
The Bulldogs were going for the knockout punch up 26-13 with four minutes to play when their Dante Smith broke off a huge run off left tackle and was 5 yards ahead of the nearest defender. UTC's Jordan Jones, though, didn't give up on the play and caught him at the 22. The effort paid off four plays later when the Bulldogs missed a field-goal attempt.
Their spirits lifted, the Mocs scored on two of their next three possessions to get within six points, ultimately putting themselves in position to go 73 yards in the final 1:41 for the win.
"Those kids went and played," Rusty Wright said afterward when someone congratulated the first-year head coach. "The one thing they realize is keep playing and you never know. It's ugly, but I can't tell you how proud I am of every guy in that locker room."
Said junior D.J. Jackson, who started in place of the injured Jerrell Laswon at free safety and made a key stop late in the game: "We never give up, no matter how badly we are getting beat. We knew coming in this was going to be a 60-minute fight. Coach Wright harped on it all week that we just had to stay in the fight and trust the process."
The reward is that this week's trip to Lexington, Virginia, still has much on the line for the Mocs (6-5, 5-2 Southern Conference). Saturday's kickoff at Virginia Military Institute (4-7, 3-4) is at 2 p.m., and if UTC wins and league leader Wofford (7-3, 6-1) loses at The Citadel (6-5, 4-3), the Mocs will tie the Terriers and Furman (7-4, 6-2) for the SoCon title. Due to losses to Wofford and Furman, though, UTC would not qualify for the league's automatic bid to the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.
However, at least some of the Mocs believe having a 6-2 league record and the fact that their five total losses have come to four ranked FCS teams and a Southeastern Conference program would give them a case to be considered for an at-large bid.
"I think we got their attention today," senior linebacker Marshall Cooper said. "The Citadel is a good team. They upset Georgia Tech and beat Furman. It was a good win under our belt to prove we still have it, you know."
Saturday's comeback was the third largest in program history — the Mocs rallied from 18 down in wins at Furman in 2010 and against The Citadel in 2009 — and it was another big game for senior Elijah Ibitokun-Hanks, who had his third 100-yard rushing performance of the season.
He carried 19 times for 125 yards, with all but 15 of the yards gained in the second half, including touchdowns covering 45 and 11 yards. But senior day wasn't just meaningful for him or the 13 others who went through pregame ceremonies.
Their teammates were determined to send the class, which has weathered more than a few storms, out in style in the home finale.
"It means a lot for those guys," said junior receiver Bryce Nunnelly, who led the Mocs with four catches for 129 yards. "Over the last four or five years they've had three coaches and no telling how many position coaches. To send them off with a win here in Coach Wright's first year is great. I'm going to miss them, for sure."
Tiano passed to Nunnelly for a 27-yard touchdown in the first quarter, marking the 12th time they have connected for a score, the fourth most by a duo in school history. The Mocs started and finished well, but in between was, well, not so good. In the first and fourth quarters they ran 31 plays and gained 365 yards. In the second and third quarters they managed just 51 yards on 27 plays. Starting center Noah Ramsey, who has been subbing for the injured Kyle Miskelley, was lost to a lower leg injury in the first quarter. Right guard Cole Strange shifted to center, with junior Gabe Dew entering at guard in what was his first significant action for UTC.