SPARTANBURG, S.C. — As Rusty Wright took the long walk from the press box to the visitors' locker room Saturday evening at Gibbs Stadium, several University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football fans who had made the four-hour trip to Wofford College let him know how they felt.
The Mocs had just taken a gut-wrenching 35-34 overtime loss to the Terriers after UTC's attempt at a 2-point conversion to win the game failed. The fans' message to the first-year head coach was 100% positive.
"Coach, great call," one said. "Coach, you did the right thing. Great game," said another, who walked over to shake Wright's hand. Others yelled encouragement across the expansive locker room area.
Wright acknowledged each instance, smiles crossing his otherwise tired face. Though pleased with the effort, he knew his team had just missed a great opportunity to seize control of the Southern Conference down the stretch.
"The difference between us and them is they didn't make mistakes," Wright said of the Terriers, who shared the conference title last year after winning it outright in 2017. "It's as simple as that.
"I think this is a step, but only if they truly understand that it's not a sometimes thing or just when I want to thing. It has to be every day. We talked about that. That's the difference in teams that go win the Southern Conference and teams that don't."
The Mocs (4-4, 3-1), mistakes and all, had the game in hand late in regulation. They were ahead 28-21 after scoring on consecutive possessions to turn around a seven-point deficit, and the UTC defense had harassed star quarterback Joe Newman all afternoon.
However, with the game on the line, Newman delivered — with a little help.
After Ailym Ford's 21-yard touchdown run gave UTC the lead with 2:08 remaining, the ensuing kickoff went out of bounds, setting the Terriers (5-2, 4-1) up at their 35. Newman, who had misfired on several throws during the game, first converted on third-and-2 with a short pass to Blake Morgan to the UTC 47.
However, three straight incompletions put the game on the line at fourth-and-10. Newman, though, calmly stepped up in the pocket against a three-man rush and found Landon Parker for 13 yards. Three plays later, D'Mauriea VanCleve scored on a 6-yard run with 15 seconds to play to send the game into overtime.
In the extra period, against an obviously tired UTC defense, Newman needed only one play to score on a 25-yard keeper. The Mocs matched it behind the tough running of Ford, who converted on third-and-2 and then scored from 3 yards on third-and-goal.
Wright called a timeout to discuss the play call, but his mind was already made up.
"As soon as we took the first snap on offense in overtime, I told them to be ready," he said. "No offense to the defense, but we were done and it wasn't going to get better. There was no question. We were going to do it and see what happened."
Tiano's first option was a pass to tight end Chris James in the right flat, but he was well covered. The quarterback bought time by sliding to the right, then let it fly into the back of the end zone, where UTC receivers Reginald Henderson and Kanore McKinnon, each trying to make a play on the ball, couldn't.
"We're trying to get the tight end in the flat, but they covered that," said Tiano, who passed for 245 yards and two touchdowns while running for another. "I tried to find somebody open and threw it up to give those guys a chance. I think they both were just going for the ball at the same time.
"We were just unlucky there. They were trying to make a play."
Like the fans who hung around to pat the Mocs and their coach on the back, UTC players were supportive of the call to win it, even though coming up short took away what had been sole possesion of first place in the league standings.
"Everybody is disappointed," said receiver Bryce Nunnelly, who had four catches for 90 yards, including a 61-yard touchdown to score the Mocs' first points. "Coach Wright said this was on him, like every loss, but we needed to make a play. I agree with the call to go for the win. We just didn't make the play."
Ford had another workmanlike game at running back, getting 140 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 29 bruising carries. Henderson had 86 yards on three catches and James had a touchdown and 31 yards on three catches, his score coming on a shovel pass from Tiano that went for 19 yards in the first half.
Despite the loss, Mocs made a statement. Senior linebacker Marshall Cooper, who had a game-high 12 tackles, wasn't ready to accept any sort of moral victory. He did, however, grasp what the close loss should mean to other SoCon teams.
"We can play," he said. "The first three games people were saying we were one of the worst three teams in the Southern Conference, so now we're making a statement. We should have won this game, but hopefully if we can fix little mistakes we can win the rest of them."
QB play is key
Tiano had perhaps his best game this season, putting the team on his back early as the Terriers were focused on stopping Ford and the ground game. The former Baylor School quarterback's 24-yard run on an option keeper to tie the score in the fourth quarter sent an audible gasp throughout the stadium and brought players on the UTC bench to their feet.
Tiano, after faking to Ford inside, pulled the ball and rolled right, though not at full speed. He was left in a one-on-one situation, displayed a nice stiff-arm move to the Wofford defender and powered his way into the end zone.
"They had been crashing inside all game, so it was a great call," Tiano said. "It was big for us late in the game to get back in it."
Wright, who praised Tiano's toughness, would like to see his quarterback make that decision a little more.
"He just has to read it every time and that's what can happen," Wright said. "He has to trust that we don't always want to hand it off. He's a tough kid. I always say your football team is only as tough as your quarterback, and he's all that."