First-and-10. Twenty-five yards from the end zone. And the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's top two tailbacks — Ailym Ford and Tyrell Price — had each gone over the 100-yard mark in regulation Saturday afternoon against Virginia Military Institute.
With the Mocs taking possession first in overtime of the Southern Conference football matchup in Lexington, Virginia, it seemed like they would ride the talented duo of Ford and Price to at least position themselves for a field goal, if not a touchdown.
UTC opted instead to throw three consecutive passes, completing one for 5 yards. Then kicker Aaron Sears, who just moments earlier was the hero after making a 39-yard field goal to force the extra frame, missed a 37-yarder to the right. That made VMI's job much easier, and the Keydets ran three plays to position themselves for Jerry Rice to nail a 37-yarder — his fifth field goal of the game — and give the reigning SoCon champions a 37-34 home win.
"We had plenty of chances," UTC coach Rusty Wright said. "There's no excuses. We had plenty of chances to take control of this game, and we didn't get it done. We just flat out didn't get it done."
The Mocs (2-3, 1-1) went over the 400-yard mark on offense for the second straight week and didn't turn the ball over, and their defense did get a takeaway on a Ben Brewton sack and strip. But that same defense was also on the field five minutes longer than the UTC offense and totaled 88 plays. VMI quarterback Seth Morgan threw for 306 yards and three scores, and big tailback Korey Bridy carried 36 times for 165 yards for the Keydets (4-2, 2-1).
The Mocs twice led by eight points and once by seven in the second half, but they were unable to make a stop down the stretch. Inside linebackers Ty Boeck and Kam Jones finished with 16 tackles apiece, and the Mocs were credited with three sacks.
UTC's Cole Copeland was 18-for-35 passing for 192 yards, and Reggie Henderson, Jamoi Mayes and Kanore McKinnon each made four catches. McKinnon led the way with 65 receiving yards.
The Mocs return to competition against rival East Tennessee State at 1:30 p.m. next Saturday at Finley Stadium. The Buccaneers (6-0, 3-0), No. 13 in the most recent Stats Perform FCS Top 25, are coming off a 48-21 win against The Citadel.
Ford and Price dominated, which gave the Mocs a chance to get back into the game. Each carried the ball 17 times and scored twice, with Price rushing for 122 yards and Ford 118. They combined for 179 yards in the second half, with Ford breaking free for a 65-yard touchdown and Price scoring from 33 yards out.
Sears was 6-for-6 on field-goal attempts going into Saturday's game, but he made only two of his four tries against the Keydets. His miss in the first quarter didn't hurt nearly as much as the one in overtime, which essentially gave the game to VMI because there wasn't nearly as much pressure on Rice's final kick as there would have been.
It goes back to overtime. Three passes was a curious decision — made worse by two incompletions — with a backfield that had averaged 7 yards per carry in the game. It just felt as though VMI's defense was starting to wilt some, and UTC wasn't able to capitalize on it.
"The running back room works every day on staying strong and pounding that rock. The offensive line did it for us the whole game." — Price
"You're always going to face some adversity at some point in the game. It's how you come back from it." — Price
"There's a lot of guys in the locker room already ready for next week. They're ready to get back to practice on Monday." — UTC linebacker Kam Jones
"Just hats off to those guys. They made some amazing, huge catches when it counted." — UTC cornerback Jordan Jones
"It's one game at a time. That's our motto around here. We want to take it one step at a time, one practice at a time, so if we do that, we'll be fine." — Jordan Jones
The parity of the SoCon means there really shouldn't be a team that feels it is considerably better than the rest. The problem for UTC is that if such a team does exist, it's the one coming to Chattanooga next weekend. The Bucs are undefeated and boast a win over a Southeastern Conference program — hapless Vanderbilt — this season. Not all is lost, but any hopes of reaching the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs will hinge on the Mocs' ability to get past this loss and figure out a way to win next Saturday.