A year that started with so much promise for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football program seems to have ended with a thud.
The Mocs closed their 2021 schedule in disappointing fashion Saturday afternoon, taking a second straight Southern Conference loss as The Citadel won 24-21 at Finley Stadium, where attendance was listed as 6,489 for senior day.
The Mocs (6-5, 5-3), who had contended for the SoCon title with a four-game winning streak before losing 10-6 last weekend at Mercer, needed a victory against the Bulldogs (4-7, 3-5) to preserve their hopes of receiving one of the 13 at-large berths for the 24-team Football Championship Subdivison playoffs. The bracket will be announced at 12:30 p.m. Sunday on ESPNU, but postgame comments from Mocs coach Rusty Wright and UTC players made it clear they're turning their attention to the offseason and next year.
But this year, win or lose, the Mocs followed the same script. Weekly game plans, as detailed as they were, could be whittled down to three keys:
1. Defend like crazy.
2. Run the ball as much as possible.
3. Hide the fact we don't trust our quarterback.
And the plan often worked. The Mocs' defense had proven to be elite in 2021 — until the last quarter of Saturday's game, when it finally wilted against the Bulldogs' triple-option attack and Sam Llewellyn found a hole on the left side and sprinted 57 yards for the go-ahead score with a little more than six minutes to play. There were also multiple personal fouls called on UTC's defense, which finally cracked under the pressure of having to carry the team.
The offense, which had been carried by its two-headed monster at running back with Ailym Ford and Tyrell Price, wasn't able to produce when it was behind. It could be because the coaching staff never had confidence in either quarterback it trotted out this season, be it senior Drayton Arnold or junior Cole Copeland, who combined for seven touchdown passes and 13 interceptions this season.
Arnold, who started and played throughout Saturday's game, tossed picks on UTC's final two possessions with the Mocs trailing. He was 0-for-7 passing in the second half after going 4-for-8 for 94 yards in a solid first half.
When asked what the biggest offseason needs were, Wright was direct.
"We've got to find a quarterback," he said. "We've got to find somebody who can either run or push the ball downfield. We'll find a way to run the football, but we have to find a way to spread people out and make them defend the whole field."
The Bulldogs' ball control netted them 39 minutes and 42 seconds of possession time compared to 20:18 for the Mocs, as well as an 81-46 advantage in total offensive plays. In the second half, the Mocs had 24 offensive plays and generated 88 yards.
Price, one of 17 seniors honored, had 144 yards on just 14 carries, giving him 853 rushing yards this season. His 75-yard touchdown on the second play from scrimmage was the longest run of his career.
With the postseason stakes the highest in the last two games, the Mocs' offense was shut out in the second half of losses to Mercer and The Citadel.
The defense had done its job in holding its own against the Bulldogs' triple-option attack, but that was until Llewellyn broke free for the go-ahead run that held up as the winning score.
From the beginning, the narrative about this UTC team was clear: It would go as far as the quarterback would take it. Talent was abundant for the Mocs on both sides of the ball, but the most important position on the field wasn't addressed and it cost them. There are other issues that will also have to be fixed before next season, of course, but a solid quarterback can erase some problems because he can open up lanes for the running backs, find receivers and help take pressure off the offensive line.
Wright and his staff were never able to turn to the offense and say, "Go win this for us," usually asking — or begging — the Mocs on the other side of the ball to do so. The defense often did just that, but not against the Bulldogs. Still, it should have never come to that. Other questions will be raised, such as the decision to opt out this past spring with the pandemic-delayed SoCon and FCS season not yet complete, but that had nothing to do with what happened in the fall.
At least one quarterback will need to be brought in this recruiting cycle, but it's apparent that just one probably won't be enough.