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Staff file photo / East Tennessee State football players taunt fans, UTC players and officials at the close of the first half of their game at Finley Stadium on Nov. 18, 2017. UTC won 10-3 that day, but the Buccaneers won 17-14 last year in Johnson City.

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Get ready for the Thursday Night Rumble at Finley Stadium.

At least that's what the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football team is preparing for as Southern Conference foe East Tennessee State University comes calling for a 7 p.m. kickoff.

UTC coach Rusty Wright, after watching video of last year's 17-14 ETSU win in Johnson City, has stressed to his team to be ready to match the Buccaneers' physicality.

"They treated it like a street fight," said Wright, whose Mocs are 3-3 overall and 2-0 in the conference halfway through his first season in charge. "They came off the ball up front and were very aggressive defensively. I don't think we handled it well last year, to be honest."

Wright believes the game hasn't quite reached the rivalry stage yet — at least on one side.

"This is the fourth time we've played since they've been back, so I don't know if the rivalry part has come back like it should, but for whatever reason last year it was for them," Wright said. "That's how they treated it, and I'm not sure we did the same way."

The football Bucs (2-4, 0-3) were members of the SoCon in 2003, their last season before the school discontinued the sport due to finances. They returned to competition in 2015 and to SoCon play the year after that.

Both teams are coming off an open date last week as they play for the Rail Rivalry Trophy. The trophy, built from a 108-pound railroad tie that once connected Johnson City and Chattanooga, was introduced last year and will be prominently displayed on the ETSU sideline.

UTC fans are encouraged to wear white.

 

Injuries still hampering offense

The Mocs could be without leading receiver Bryce Nunnelly, who missed the final three quarters of a 34-17 win at Mercer on Oct. 5 due to a shoulder injury. Wright said the decision on whether Nunnelly plays will be made at game time.

With Lameric Tucker out for the season, the Mocs will likely have to rely on receivers Reginald Henderson, who is coming off his best game (three catches, 43 yards), Kanore McKinnon, Tyrin Summers and Juwan Tyus. Tight end Chris James, who has caught two touchdown passes and thrown one in the past three games, could be targeted more.

Nunnelly had only two catches for 14 yards at Mercer, but the preseason All-American has 21 catches for 308 yards and three touchdowns this year.

Running back Elijah Ibitokun-Hanks will miss the game, leaving freshman Ailym Ford, who leads the team with 578 yards on the ground, and Jeffrey Wood II to handle the rushing load.

"Bryce is day to day," Wright said. "We'll see how he is game day. Hopefully a couple of extra days will help him. We've kind of got who we've got right now, but it's been good to have guys step up."

 

Cooper playing through pain

Senior linebacker Marshall Cooper dropped what should have been an easy interception against Mercer, and now we know why.

The Hixson High School graduate has been playing with injuries to both hands. He tore ligaments in his right thumb late in training camp, but Cooper has elected to delay necessary surgery until the season is over, playing first with a cast and then with a splint and tape. He also broke a bone in his left hand against Tennessee on Sept. 14.

"My thumb can move a little bit. It's a little messed up," said Cooper, who demonstrated by bending his thumb sideways until it touched the side of his hand during Tuesday's media luncheon. "I won a rock, paper, scissors competition the other day, so there's that. I've dropped a lot of balls this year because of it, too.

"The doctor wanted me to have immediate surgery on it, but I would have missed the first four games, so we put a cast on it the first three games. I broke my other hand against Tennessee and had surgery on it and was able to get out of the cast and play against James Madison. It's hard to grab people and catch, but I'm dealing with it."

Cooper was a big part of the Mocs' dominant defensive effort against Mercer. A week after allowing more than 400 rushing yards against Western Carolina, UTC held the Bears to 29.

"We just did the same things," Cooper said. "It was just execution. Even in the Western Carolina game where we gave up all those rushing yards, it was a simple somebody not being in the right gap thing. That was the case in multiple games, but in the Mercer game everybody went to the right place. That led to a lot of good things happening."

Contact Lindsey Young at lyoung@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6296. Follow him on Twitter @youngsports22.

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