KNOXVILLE — A slow start to his first season as head coach at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga was a very real possibility for Rusty Wright. The Mocs' schedule was ranked second in terms of difficulty among all Football Championship Subdivision programs entering the season.
After Saturday's lopsided loss against Tennessee of the Football Bowl Subdivision and with FCS power James Madison visiting Finley Stadium next weekend, the Mocs could face a 1-3 start heading into Southern Conference play. Wright, a longtime college assistant before taking over at his alma mater, hopes the Mocs follow the path of another of his former teams.
"These three weeks I knew was going to be a tough stretch," Wright said. "I tried to figure out the other day the last time we've ever seen a three-game stretch like we're playing. It was 11 years ago when I was at Miami (Ohio) and we started out with Colorado, Minnesota and Cincinnati, all good football teams.
"I'll never forget it, we lost 42-0 at Colorado, and you're sitting there thinking this cannot get any worse. Robbie Wilson was the starting strong safety for us, and he stood up and got that whole team right. One guy. We started 1-4 but ended up winning the MAC East."
Wright admitted the Mocs are still waiting for that leader, or group of leaders, to emerge, but he reassured his team after the loss to the Volunteers that everything can be corrected.
"We'll find it. Everything is not great when you win and not always bad when you lose," he said. "Hopefully we learn from it. It doesn't do you any good to get beat this bad and not learn from it. If you don't learn from it, history will repeat itself."
EB offers bright spot
Elijah Ibitokun-Hanks, better known as "EB" in UTC's locker room, had a coming-out performance, leading all rushers with 85 yards on 15 carries.
UTC was without starter Tyrell Price, who is still recovering from an upper leg injury, but like freshman Ailym Ford a week earlier in a loss at Jacksonville State, Ibitokun-Hanks proved the Mocs' ground game is in good shape.
"It's bittersweet," the graduate transfer said of his performance. "I wanted to show my work, and I feel like I did that today, but with my mentality, I don't feel it was good enough because we did not win."
Bench (almost) empty
Wright said only one player who dressed for the Mocs did not get in the game, one of the few positives the coach said his team can take out of the loss.
"That was important for me to make sure everybody got in, so at least we accomplished that," he said before correcting himself. "I think the backup long snapper didn't play, and he probably should have. It was really hot, so it was nice to get those guys in."
Junior safety Jerrell Lawson said the experience could pay off later.
"We found we have a lot of guys who can play and we can rotate different guys to keep us fresh," he said. "I think that's the positive we can take out of here."
Bradley's Person shines
Freshman linebacker Jay Person, a Bradley Central High School graduate, led the team in tackles Saturday with eight, five of them solo stops. He admitted the speed of the game against a Southeastern Conference program was an adjustment that took time.
"It was a bit faster than what we played the first two weeks," said Person, whose team opened against Eastern Illinois. "We should have been able to pick up on it sooner, though. We just have to keep on going. This showed us a lot about ourselves."