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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / UTC's Rashun Freeman, left, makes a play on a pass to Eastern Illinois wide receiver Marques Ray during the season opener for both teams on Aug. 29 at Finley Stadium.

The statement was made this week that the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga is about to host the best football team it has ever played at Finley Stadium.

Ranked No. 2 in both Football Championship Subdivision polls listed by the NCAA, James Madison University (2-1) again has the makings of a team that can contend for a national title. The Dukes have two of those already, winning their second in 2016 after earning their first in 2004 with a 31-21 victory over Montana at Finley.

They are not, however, the only highly ranked team that has played at UTC. Marshall was No. 1 in 1993 when the Mocs, led by Terrell Owens' four touchdown catches, shocked the Thundering Herd by winning 33-31 at Chamberlain Field. Rusty Wright, now in his first year as head coach of the Mocs, was a tight end on that team and caught a 27-yard pass.

UTC will have another chance to surprise in Saturday's 4 p.m. matchup with the Dukes.

With the Mocs (1-2) coming off back-to-back road losses to FCS power Jacksonville State and Football Bowl Subdivision member Tennessee and preparing for another challenging opponent, Wright used the Marshall game to get his players' attention prior to a practice early this week.

"I asked them to raise their hands if they had ever beaten a No. 1 team in the country," he said. "I raised my hand and told them it can get done and it will get done again."

The recipe for the would-be upset has several ingredients, including obvious ones such as eliminating turnovers and, as Wright calls them, stupid mistakes. The main ingredient, however, just might be a quick start, something the Mocs have failed to produce so far this season.

"We learned the last two weeks that we have a lot of different things we have to work on and that a game can get away from you pretty quickly," said junior Rashun Freeman, a linebacker/defensive back. "We have to start better."

Added senior tight end Chris James: "Starting fast and executing and getting that momentum, that's the key Saturday. We can run the ball on them, but we just have to start fast and stop waiting for somebody to make a play and go make it. Once we get rolling, we're pretty good. We just have to start that way from the first play."

The Mocs need only to recall the nightmare start last Saturday in Knoxville when a long kickoff return, a blocked punt and an interception had them down 21-0 before the first quarter was half over.

The Dukes, who opened the season with a 20-13 loss to FBS member West Virginia, will present the Mocs with arguably the best offense they have faced this season. They have averaged 40 points and 456 yards per game, split nearly evenly between the run and the pass. Coach Curt Cignetti's team has converted on nearly 50% of its third downs and has scored on 16 of 18 opportunities in the red zone (inside the opponent's 20-yard line), 11 of them touchdowns.

Defensively, the Dukes have allowed one touchdown in four red-zone opportunities for opponents. The Mocs have just four touchdowns in 11 times in the red zone.

Wright thinks remedying that deficiency could be the final ingredient in the upset recipe.

"We're going to have to do it all Saturday," he said. "We're going to have to be able to throw the ball and, the big thing, catch it. We'll have to run it when we need to run it. It will kind of be dictated to us by what they do.

"And when we have opportunities to score touchdowns, we have to do that. We can't keep up with them kicking field goals."

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

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