With all the positive press that can be written about the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's defense, the prospects for this season will continue to depend on the Mocs' ability to take care of the football and make plays on offense when presented to them.
That responsibility will be laid — fair of foul — on the quarterback, which means junior Cole Copeland, who continues to learn after playing in just his 11th college game Saturday against Western Carolina. If the offense can be a threat, the Mocs will be a threat.
There won't be many other games like Saturday's 45-17 win over the Catamounts at Finley Stadium, though.
Copeland had enough time in the pocket to take pictures if he wanted to. But he instead chose to push the football downfield, and an offense that had struggled to be explosive in the first three games found ways to play its part of what head coach Rusty Wright calls "complementary football" in the Mocs' Southern Conference opener.
UTC (2-2) went over 500 yards for just the second time under Wright, with the first time in 2019 — and also against the Catamounts. Saturday's performance was a balanced effort by the Mocs, and while the 271 rushing yards were impressive, equally as impressive were the 247 passing yards. UTC had just seven explosive plays — covering 20 or more yards — this season before Saturday. They had nine such plays against Western Carolina (0-5, 0-1), with five of those passes.
"We need it all," Wright said. "We need to get out there and catch a hitch and get more than 3 or 4 (yards). We were going to take a few more shots today, but there was a lot more wind out there than I thought there would be."
Copeland was 17-of-29 passing for 239 yards — his first 200-yard showing through the air since 2017 — and a pair of touchdowns to backup tight end Keshawn Toney, a South Carolina transfer.
The ground game was dominant, with three Mocs breaking off a run of 35 or more yards: Tyrell Price (82), Gino Appleberry (79) and Ailym Ford (74). That made Copeland's job even easier as he improved to 4-2 in his past six starts dating to 2017.
"It's a quarterback's dream," the former Bradley Central standout said of the deep rushing attack. "The way the offensive line played, allowing the guys to move like that, and how the running backs moved the ball, it's definitely nice to see at the quarterback's position."
Bigger tests are coming in the league schedule and the push to reach the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.
The Mocs return to competition next Saturday at reigning SoCon champion Virginia Military Institute (3-2, 1-1), which is ranked 22nd in both FCS national polls listed by the NCAA but lost 35-24 on Saturday at The Citadel. After that, UTC host rival East Tennessee State, currently a top-15 team, on Oct. 16 before an Oct. 23 visit to Samford.
It's possible those three games will play a big part to determine the next SoCon champ.
"We're in the middle of the conference race," Wright said. "We've got to go play whoever's next and give ourselves an opportunity to go win."
With more offensive performances like Saturday's matching the defensive prowess, it's going to be hard to lose.
More observations from the decisive win against Western Carolina:
From the opening kickoff, which the Catamounts returned 59 yards to set up first-and-goal from the 7, the Mocs' defense was put in some bad positions throughout the game. That series ended in a Western Carolina field goal. For the game, the Catamounts — who had 650 yards last weekend against Gardner-Webb — were held to 277 yards of total offense and turned the ball over four times, with UTC's Brandon Dowdell, Jerrell Lawson and Telly Plummer getting interceptions and Christian Snyder recovering a fumble.
The Mocs entered the game with just seven plays covering at least 20 yards this season. They had nine against the Catamounts, with Copeland completing five passes for big gains and the long runs supplied by Appleberry — who had two — Ford and Price.
The Mocs had just scored to take a 7-3 lead when Dowdell stepped in front of a Rogan Wells pass for his fourth interception of the season and 10th of his UTC career. It only took three plays for Copeland to plunge the ball in from the 1-yard line to put the Mocs up 14-3 just over halfway through the first quarter.
The start was dominant on both sides of the ball, but the Mocs cooled off some offensively and allowed the lowly Catamounts to stay somewhat close early. That didn't become an issue Saturday, but with competition starting to stiffen over the next three weeks, the Mocs will have to be better.