Updated with postgame coverage at 7:40 p.m. on Oct. 5, 2019.
MACON, Ga. — The smile could have been seen in Atlanta.
Following his team's most complete game of the season in a 34-17 win Saturday at Mercer, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football coach Rusty Wright's face lit up when asked to describe the difference three weeks can make.
"Whew! It's awesome," Wright said, his team 2-0 in the Southern Conference. "If you had told me a month ago that this is where we would be, I don't think I would believe you.
"It's a great win. We're a bunch of misfits and mis-banded coaches — people nobody wants — but we just figured out a way to play hard. It was fun to watch."
Senior quarterback Nick Tiano overcame the loss of favorite receiver Bryce Nunnelly with a shoulder injury to lead a comeback win. Tiano, who started 2-for-9 with an interception, finished with 190 yards and two touchdowns and added a scoring run as the Mocs improved to 3-3 overall.
Freshman running back Ailym Ford had 116 yards on 32 carries despite a nagging hamstring problem, while Chris James and Nunnelly had touchdown receptions. The UTC defense limited Mercer (2-4, 1-2) to 257 total yards and only 29 rushing, nearly 150 less than the Bears' season average.
"The things they ran were real easy to see, and we had answers for it," said sophomore inside linebacker Ty Boeck, who again led the Mocs with 12 tackles. "They are a big RPO (run-pass option) team, and we have a good RPO defense. Our linemen and linebackers made a big difference. Our D-line really showed out today."
A week after UTC's 60-36 win over Western Carolina, Saturday's game began as another offensive shootout. The Mocs fell behind 14-7 when Mercer's Deondre Johnson returned a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown, but the UTC defense did not allow another point until the fourth quarter.
"It's not rocket science on that side of the ball," Wright said. "Do your job. Be where you are supposed to be and make people line up and beat you. That's what we have to do. We had a good plan and we had a good week of practice. The defensive front had a big game. They played like they are capable of playing."
With Nunnelly out after being hit on the right arm reaching for a high incompletion late in the first quarter, the Mocs marched 71 yards in 12 plays to even the score. The key play was a 12-yard completion to Tyrin Summers on third-and-5 early in the drive. Jeffrey Wood II had an 18-yard run to the 20, and Ford capped the drive with an 8-yard run to tie it.
The game had a key moment late in the first half when Victor Ulmo's 35-yard field-goal try was blocked, but an offside penalty on Mercer kept the drive alive. Ulmo later was good from 21 yards to end the half with the Mocs up 17-14.
The momentum continued in the second half as the Mocs opened with a 75-yard drive that featured two big catches from tight end Chris James. The first, a 34-yarder, converted a third-and-6 into a first down at the Mercer 42. James ended the drive with a 1-yard touchdown catch on fourth down as Tiano froze the Mercer defense with a nice play-action fake.
"Chris is awesome. He makes big plays, plays his tail off and he's a mismatch inside against anybody," Tiano said of the former quarterback. "I know Chris is going to do what he's supposed to do and be where he's supposed to be. That touchdown was huge."
Tiano then led a lengthy drive that started at the UTC 5 and ended with Ulmo's 36-yard field goal. A 22-yard pass to Reggie Henderson kept the drive going, resulting in a 27-14 lead.
The Bears, behind quarterback Robert Riddle from McCallie School, quickly drove into UTC territory and ultimately faced third-and-10 from the 17. Riddle faked one way and hit Johnson in the flat, with only one defender to beat. Safety Jerrell Lawson stopped Johnson in his tracks, however, forcing Mercer coach Bobby Lamb to settle for a field goal.
"That's the difference in these games," Wright said of the play. "People have to make plays, and we have to make stops like that. It is the difference in the football game."
The Mocs iced it later when, after lineman Khayyan Edwards blocked a punt, Tiano scrambled for an 11-yard touchdown and a 34-17 lead.
"It was an RPO. Nobody was open, so I tucked it and did what I could," Tiano said. "To go on the road and get a big conference win is huge. Everybody beats everybody, and you can win or lose any night. To get that win tonight is a huge confidence booster heading into the bye week."