BOWLING GREEN, Ky. — The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football team lost 13-10 in heartbreaking fashion Saturday at Western Kentucky, the only fall game the Mocs will play in their 2020-21 schedule.
They're set to return to competition Feb. 20 against Virginia Military Institute at Finley Stadium, the opener an eight-game Southern Conference schedule that will provide the opportunity to earn a spot in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs, which are scheduled to start in late April.
While the Mocs missed out on an opportunity to go undefeated — at least for one semester — the road trip to take on a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent produced a $350,000 payday for UTC and was the culmination of a month of valuable practice time. The competition itself was an opportunity to evaluate progress and look toward the spring.
After rewatching the game, here are a few next-day observations.
Drayton Arnold wasn't as bad as believed: It's 100% correct that Arnold, who started at quarterback against the Hilltoppers, is a fifth-year senior, which would lead some to believe he's an experienced asset. Bear in mind, though, that junior Cole Copeland has the most starting experience of any quarterback on the roster — despite not having played in a college game since 2017 — and that until Saturday's game, freshman Ty Gossett was the UTC quarterback with the most recent start of any sort, which was for a North Carolina prep school last year. Arnold had not started a game since Dec. 4, 2015, when he was a senior at South Carolina's Myrtle Beach High School. There's no substitute for game action, and Arnold hasn't had much in college: He transferred from Old Dominion in 2019 having played in only two contests for the Monarchs, and he appeared in just three last year for the Mocs.
Arnold finished 9-for-23 passing for 90 yards at Western Kentucky, and he rushed for 46 yards if sacks are discounted. His initial instinct when pressure comes is to run — that's not an indictment as much as a reality — and he missed on some throws, but at times he wasn't helped by the offense. On a third-down play on the Mocs' second drive, it appeared there was some confusion between receiver Bryce Nunnelly and tight end Chris James, who ran similar routes. That led to a sack. There was also a missed offside penalty against the Hilltoppers that would have resulted in a UTC first down; on that play, Arnold made a nice back-shoulder throw but Reginald Henderson couldn't hold on to the ball. Then there was a drop by James on fourth down that would have put the Mocs inside the red zone.
The things talked about in this space can be fixed with game action. Obviously it will be a while before Arnold gets more of that, but it will be interesting to see how he develops throughout the spring season.
UTC defense was big on third down: After the game, UTC outside linebacker Jay Person called it the Mocs' "money down."
Said Person: "It's a chance to get to the quarterback, make a big stop and celebrate with your teammates."
Person and the Mocs were celebrating all game while wreaking havoc on the Hilltoppers. It started on Western Kentucky's first drive, when UTC defensive lineman Christian Smith hit quarterback Kevaaris Thomas, forcing an errant throw in the red zone. Smith was again in the backfield on the Hilltoppers' next possession, making a tackle for loss on third-and-2. Then Person took over, getting the first of his two sacks on the last play of the first half and forcing a fumble that was recovered by Ty Boeck. Person's second sack was on third down on the first drive of the second half, and he later contributed another tackle for loss.
No idea what to make of "the call": People a lot smarter than me probably know the official rule on who is allowed to signal for a fair catch on kickoffs, but I was on the sideline when Nunnelly seemingly returned a kick more than 100 yards for a go-ahead touchdown in the final two minutes only to have it nullified by an official's call that made the play dead. I saw UTC's Tyrin Summers make some motion, but having seen it live (as well as seeing it from every camera angle sent to me), I think Summers was motioning to Nunnelly to bring the ball out of the end zone — which would fall in line with Mocs coach Rusty Wright's comments after the game — and get as many yards as possible. Remember, the Mocs had only 81 seconds of game time remaining, and starting a drive at their 25-yard line (where UTC would have been on any fair catch inside the 25) with no timeouts and a first-year starting quarterback has its risks. So the plan was to return the kick, and I'll say this: The Hilltoppers on the field didn't act like they thought the play had been whistled dead.
But also, Rusty was "Wright": In theory, the Mocs weren't supposed to be in the game. What I saw Saturday wasn't a fluke, though. They went to Bowling Green to face an FBS opponent and were the better team, to the point that their hosts from Conference USA were attempting multiple trick plays in the red zone just to try to generate a touchdown. The Mocs won every aspect of the game save for the all-important final score. Western Kentucky fans, should they want to, could point to the lack of motivation for a game against an FCS opponent in late October. The Mocs could in turn, point to the fact that it was their first game of the season — the Hilltoppers improved to 2-4 with the win — and one in which UTC was missing key players on defense.
If the Mocs are able to put forth that type of effort eight times in the spring, they're going to be difficult to beat.