There is only one unblemished football record in the Southern Conference, and it belongs to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
The Mocs' 16-13 win over East Tennessee State University on Thursday night moved them to 3-0 in league play and at the time tied them with Furman, which is ranked eighth nationally in both FCS polls listed by the NCAA. The Paladins, though, were upset by The Citadel 27-10 on Saturday, dropping them into a second-place tie with 2018 SoCon champion Wofford with one league loss each.
UTC, which is 4-3 overall, just so happens to be playing at Wofford this Saturday and will host Furman the following week. First-year head coach Rusty Wright has insisted all season he won't be concerned with what other teams are doing.
He is, however, quite interested in his Mocs' transformation from a team that was not competitive on the field for the great majority of three games into a first-place squad in late October.
"If you would have told me a month and a half ago we'd be sitting here at 3-0 in the league, I don't know what I'd say after that James Madison game," he said after Thursday's defensive-minded win at Finley Stadium. "These guys fight in that locker room. When they come to work during the week and they prepare themselves, they understand what a fight is now."
Ulmo had no doubt
Victor Ulmo just wanted one more shot. After missing three-field goal attempts and a PAT against ETSU, the junior kicker was rooting on UTC's defense to make a stop with the game tied at 13 and the clock winding under two minutes.
The Mocs did just that, and then running back Ailym Ford, quarterback Nick Tiano and the rest of the offense put together an efficient 47-yard drive — and Ulmo got his shot at redemption with 14 seconds left and made the most of it.
Afterward, the Baylor School graduate said he never lost confidence.
"It's all about a mindset I had to have," said Ulmo, who entered the game ranked among the program's most accurate kickers of all time at 72%. "I trust my snapper, I trust my holder even though we didn't have a good day as a unit.
"I have to trust myself always; never had a doubt if I'd make that kick. Huge shout-out to the offense and to the defense. Defense kept making stops. Nick talked to me many times. He said he was going to get down the field and give me another shot.
"That meant a lot to me to know they had my back, so I just have to be better to help the team win games."
Defense shines again
Lost somewhat in the dramatic ending and freshman Ford's 200-yard rushing performance was another stellar effort by the UTC defense.
The Mocs held ETSU to 272 total yards, nearly 100 under the Buccaneers' per-game average this season. The Bucs managed 124 rushing yards, but half of those came on one run by Quay Holmes in the first half. On the other 27 runs, ETSU managed only 61 yards.
"We're a unit that flies around," senior inside linebacker Marshall Cooper said. "We're aggressive, and we did our job for the most part. Their big run was a missed tackle, so it's a simple tackle that could have stopped that drive and take three points off the board.
"It's going to be a big year when everyone keeps having nights like this, and they know they can do it again."
The defense had its best moments in the final quarter. The Bucs put together a rare long drive that reached the UTC 12 just as the period started. Facing fourth-and-1 with the score tied, ETSU went for it, but a jet sweep was sniffed out by Jarrell Lawson for a 3-yard loss.
Later, with the score still tied and ETSU starting a drive at its 20 with 2:31 remaining, the defense did not take a conservative approach in fear of big plays. Instead, the Mocs attacked the line of scrimmage, stopping three consecutive runs and forcing a punt that led to the winning drive.
"We held them to 272 yards and one touchdown that was pretty much gifted, so you can't ask much more from the defense," Wright said. "They held when they had to and gave us a chance to win it."