BOWLING GREEN, Ky. — University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football coach Rusty Wright had a simple message for his team after Thursday's final practice before Saturday's game at Western Kentucky.
"You better get your mind right," he said. "Because it's here."
The Mocs will play their lone game this fall when they face the Hilltoppers (1-4) at 4 p.m. Eastern at Houchens Industries-L.T. Smith Stadium. After that comes a short layoff — at least in football terms — for UTC, which will begin its Southern Conference schedule on Feb. 20 against Virginia Military Institute at Finley Stadium.
UTC is offering a "second screen" experience for the Western Kentucky game via YouTube, and it will combine the radio broadcast of WFLI 97.7 FM and the video feed of ESPN3.
The Mocs have dealt with plenty of adversity off the field this year, with COVID-19 canceling spring practices, altering offseason training and pushing SoCon competition and the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs to the spring semester. Facing the Hilltoppers of the Football Bowl Subdivision and Conference USA, though, will be the first on-field adversity UTC football players have dealt with since last November, when they wrapped up a 6-6 record in Wright's debut season as head coach.
"We'll have to get it figured out and go play," Wright said. "They're going to keep score and time is going to be kept, so we've got to figure it out.
"I'll be interested to see how they play."
Here are some things to look for from the Mocs in the game:
What will Ailym Ford do?
Ford, the UTC running back who was the 2019 SoCon freshman of the year despite missing the final two games due to an ACL tear, has looked good in practice. But with the spring schedule now looming and two other quality running backs — senior Tyrell Price and sophomore Gino Appleberry (a Western Kentucky transfer) — available against the Hilltoppers, it's possible Ford's playing time will be limited or nonexistent. Wright said this week that he "loves that room" of running backs when it comes to his options.
Is quarterback settled?
It's fair to question how UTC fans should feel about this position. The player with the most college experience, junior Cole Copeland, hasn't played since 2017. Drayton Arnold is the senior and will start for now, with Copeland and freshman Ty Gossett having split reps behind him in practice this week. How Arnold fares in this game and beyond and how Copeland and Gossett perform in practice will determine UTC coaches' next step in recruiting.
Is DLU back?
With an injury sidelining sophomore Ben Brewton — the incumbent to start opposite junior Devonnsha Maxwell on the defensive line — it's possible the position will be turned over to freshman John Prince, who has been one of the highlights of preseason practices. Quay Wiggles — another freshman, he was a highly regarded recruit, having committed to Georgia Tech at one point — started slowly but has started to figure things out as well. Throw in graduate transfer Tez Wilson, and the Mocs will have the ability to get after Hilltoppers quarterbacks Tyrrell Pigrome and Kevaris Thomas, who have struggled against what has been a tough schedule.
Effort won't be a problem.
For some UTC players, this is it. Some of the Mocs will graduate at the end of this semester and move on to other endeavors, so while Wright has spoken about the need to put forth a full 60-minute effort, a team that has been on campus since early July — at times uncertain it would play at all this fall — doesn't need to be told. This game is what the Mocs have been waiting for.
This team is confident.
Junior linebacker Ty Boeck told the Times Free Press this week that he believed the Mocs would be able to control the game, and that requires controlling the line of scrimmage. The last time UTC played against a FBS opponent that wasn't from a Power Five conference, the Mocs nearly beat Central Michigan, succumbing late in a 20-16 loss in the 2014 season opener. The Hilltoppers compete at a higher level of Division I than UTC, but they aren't Tennessee, Florida State, Alabama, LSU or South Carolina — the five FBS opponents the Mocs have faced since the close call against the Chippewas. Western Kentucky's losses this year are to Louisville, undefeated Liberty, undefeated and 22nd-ranked Marshall and the University of Alabama at Birmingham, which took its only loss at 11th-ranked Miami. So it's difficult to say how good the Hilltoppers really are — but the Mocs are ready to find out.