KNOXVILLE — Rusty Wright wants his University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football team to be confident. After Saturday's 45-0 loss in Knoxville, the first-year head coach also wants the Mocs to be — and prepare — smarter.
TENNESSEE 45, UTC 0
Staff writer Lindsey Young breaks down the game in bits and pieces.
It had to be Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt, who managed to get the Volunteers focused and motivated for the Football Championship Subdivision's Mocs after two weeks of turmoil. The win may not erase the angst of losses to Georgia State and BYU, but it showed Pruitt still has the locker room with the Vols about to begin Southeastern Conference play.
Minus-27. That was University of Tennessee at Chattanooga quarterback Nick Tiano's passer rating at the half. The senior was not helped by his receivers, who dropped three of his first four passes, but he threw two interceptions and was late on his reads early. Tiano finished 4-of-16 for 40 yards, with backup Drayton Arnold not faring much better at 5-for-10 for 36 yards with two interceptions.
It may not have mattered in the end, but Tennessee's first play from scrimmage should have been a turnover. Jarrett Guarantano's pass down the left sideline hit UTC cornerback Jordan Jones in the hands, but receiver Marquez Callaway managed to knock the ball loose from behind before Jones could come down with it. A pick there and angry Vols fans, already calling for Guarantano's benching, would have been raining down boos. Ty Chandler scored six plays later, though, and the rout was on.
If there was one for the Mocs, it had to be senior graduate transfer Elijah Ibitokun-Hanks' 37-yard run late in the first quarter that put UTC on the Tennessee 8. The Mocs reached the 1 before a penalty and a fumbled snap killed their only legitimate scoring chance in the game, but Ibitokun-Hanks' ramble at least gave UTC fans something to cheer.
WHAT IT MEANS
Outside of some bruised pride, it means very little for the Mocs unless the beatdown carries over. The Mocs get back to their own level next weekend at Finley Stadium, though James Madison is a serious FCS title contender.
"We came over here for the walk-through yesterday like it was no big deal," Wright said as sweat-soaked University of Tennessee fans exited cavernous Neyland Stadium. "Well, it was a big deal in that first quarter.
"That's what's disappointing to me. We have to overcome some things. I don't know if we think we are better than we are or what it may be, but we have a long way to go internally before we get stuff right."
A nightmare start began with a long kickoff return by the Volunteers and continued over the next three hours. Five turnovers, a blocked punt that led to a touchdown, a dropped punt snap and numerous dropped passes were just part of Wright's frustrating afternoon.
UTC moved inside the Tennessee 20 three times but could not score. The Vols, on the other hand, were 4-for-4 inside the 20, all touchdowns. The low point for the Mocs may have been when, after running back Elijah Ibitokun-Hanks' 37-yard gain put them at the Tennessee 8, the drive ended after a false start and a fumbled snap.
"That one run, after they had gotten momentum early, to me, that run could have maybe gotten the momentum back for us," said Ibitokun-Hanks, who led all rushers with 85 yards on 15 carries. "We just didn't do enough, and it just shows it takes everybody, and if even one guy messes up it can affect the whole team."
The Mocs (1-2) were major underdogs to begin with, but two weeks after Georgia State left Neyland with a win and on a day when Southern Conference members Furman and The Citadel gave Power Five teams big problems, Wright found very few positives.
"Those things cannot happen, but they did," Wright said of the Mocs' mistakes. "You can't do it. I doesn't matter where you're playing, you can't do it. The stadium doesn't matter. You can't do those things at VMI. You can't turn the ball over five times against anyone.
"When you get an opportunity, you've got to make a play. We've got guys on scholarship, too, and they need to make plays. When they don't, the first quarter ends up being like it was."
Junior safety Jerrell Lawson, who had five tackles, believes the game could be a turning point for the Mocs, who begin SoCon play after this week's home game against James Madison.
"I think we needed this," Lawson said. "It definitely will humble us. We need to get back to practice and do the small things right and get better before next week. A loss like this shows that you need unity. It takes every side of the ball to succeed. When one side struggles, the other side needs to pick it up."
Added Ibitokun-Hanks: "We took our licks today, and now it's time to learn from them and give them back."