There was probably no better way for University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football coach Rusty Wright to frame his defense's performance after Saturday's 20-18 win at Furman.
"We've got some dudes over there on defense," he said on the Mocs' postgame radio broadcast.
The Paladins entered Saturday's game in Greenville, South Carolina, with the second-best offense in the Southern Conference in points and total yards. They exited having tallied 170 yards of total offense and four turnovers against a team that began the week ranked fifth in the Football Championship Subdivision in total defense among schools that had played multiple games this season.
The dominance wasn't specific to one position group, either, as the depth on that side of the ball had a chance to shine for the Mocs (3-1, 3-0), who are ranked 11th in the Stats Perform FCS Top 25 and 12th in the coaches' poll.
After missing the past two games, tackle Christian Smith had three stops. Purdue transfer Giovanni Reviere, who prepped at McCallie, had a pair of tackles in his UTC debut, while Ben Brewton recovered a fumble — and those two were backups on the defensive line. Ty Boeck made eight tackles, and he intercepted a pass and recovered a fumble on the Paladins' first two possessions. Fellow inside linebacker Kam Jones had 3.5 tackles for loss, and outside linebacker Jay Person's hit on the quarterback led to Boeck's interception. Person was credited with a sack as well — a key play in the fourth quarter — and safety Jerrell Lawson also picked off a pass.
"If we could figure out how to make a field longer on people, our defense would be really good," Wright said. "We've got some good football players on defense. When that group is locked in like they have been for the last three weeks, it's a really good defense, and they have a chance to be really good for a long time."
The offense nearly reached 400 yards for the first time this season, but senior starting quarterback Drayton Arnold struggled and was replaced in each half by junior Cole Copeland, who finished the game after Arnold's second interception. Arnold and Copeland combined for 211 passing yards but three turnovers as well. Special teams also had problems, with some bad snaps leading to 10 points for Furman (3-2, 3-2), which is 11th in the coaches' poll and 13th in the Stats poll.
However, the Mocs — who returned from an open date two weeks after an overtime victory at The Citadel — found a way to win again as they kept pace in the SoCon standings with Virginia Military Institute (4-0, 4-0), which rallied Saturday to win 38-37 in overtime at Samford 38-37.
The Mocs host Mercer (2-5, 2-2) next Saturday at Finley Stadium. Kickoff is set for noon, and UTC announced Friday that up to 5,000 fans will be allowed for that game and the April 27 against Samford, the final scheduled home date of the spring semester season.
The timing on a recent Times Free Press article on Tyrell Price's return from a 2018 ACL injury looked great thanks to the senior running back's performance Saturday. Price entered with 115 rushing yards through three games this school year, and he nearly matched that against a defense that had allowed just 82.4 yards per game on the ground. His 111 rushing yards against the Paladins rank third in his career, and it was his first 100-yard rushing game since going for 135 against Western Carolina on Oct. 13, 2018. He also had 36 receiving yards at Furman, including a 25-yard catch on the winning drive.
The Paladins were the only team in the SoCon averaging at least 200 yards rushing and passing, but against the Mocs, they failed to reach 100 in either category, with 49 on the ground and 86 through the air. UTC freshman walk-on Skyler Wilson kicked two field goals, including a season long of 42 with 7:36 to play for the game's final points.
The Mocs punted with 2:21 remaining, giving Furman the ball at its 20 with no timeouts remaining. The home team drove to midfield, but on consecutive plays, Hamp Sisson was sacked by Person and Devonnsha Maxwell, with the latter resulting in the fumble recovered by Brewton.
"Losing Kyle is like losing another coach on the field; that is a great player. He knows what he's doing on this offensive line, so it hurts to lose him, but Reid came in and made adjustments. He stepped up big time for us today." — UTC junior right guard McClendon Curtis on the emergence of backup center Reid Williams when starter Kyle Miskelley went out with an injury
"Shoutout to the defensive line. They really made a lot of plays; they may or may not have made the plays themselves, but they opened it up for the linebackers and safeties to be able to do what we needed to do. I just thought the defense played really well all the way around, even when we were put in tough situations." — Boeck
For the second straight game, the Mocs jumped out to a double-digit lead before rallying for a victory. The little lulls along the way on offense — along with Wright's reluctance to attempt long field goals with Wilson, which has led to some failed fourth-down conversions in enemy territory — has kept games closer than they should be. The most important thing gained by the Mocs on this day was a win, and with a couple of home games ahead, UTC has a chance to rest some older players and let them prepare for the fall schedule.